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These are some of the posts which may have drifted from the top or the front page but which still have my attention or interest. Comments are most welcome.

Taking Faith Seriously


What does it mean to take faith seriously? Is it important?

Having recently written about notions of spirituality as well as of prayer that are primitive, that is, that precede the specific notions of particular sacred tradition, that I might have something to write about faith. But that one is much harder.

It's not hard to be dismissive of the idea, either through ridicule or through firm devotion to an unexplored and undeveloped notion of faith. Taking faith seriously is a challenge.

There's a ton of material on describing or defining faith on this blog alone. But let's keep it simple. It's a form of trust and anticipation about something or someone that cannot be explained in a strictly rational, logical, or empirically verifiable way.

That isn't to say that there aren't rational, logical, or empirically grounded reasons for faith. There may be plenty. An overabundance. But faith stretches out beyond such standards of verification and prediction. Faith is a risk that one takes, which is why it is sometimes compared to a leap into the unknown.

We all take small risks like that everyday, taking common assumptions for granted. We can call those experiences little leaps of faith if we want, but they don't require nearly as much trust nor do they engender the same level of anticipation as what we're talking about. Having a big leap of faith every so often is also common in human life, but that's not what I'm getting at here either.

In the context of spirituality (and religion), faith is a constant endeavor along a trajectory toward something far greater than oneself, however that may be conceived of or represented. It may also involve regular small leaps as well as bigger ones now and again, but it is part of a larger process or path. As you go along, you may even have to let go of the regularity and familiarity of the process. The path may seem to shift or even to disappear, requiring even greater faith. Dark nights of the senses and the soul.

What is the point of following such a path? Why bother with faith at all?

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Quick Summary of Outlooks in Religion and Spirituality

English: Sadhu offering charas to Shiva, India.
English: Sadhu offering charas to Shiva, India. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Originally written June 22, 2012

Too many people in modern industrialized societies have such a limited view of what religion is that their approach to thinking about, reacting to, and discussing religion can become counterproductive. Below is a rough sketch of a brief summary of some important distinctions to show what I mean. I use popularized terms and concepts such as "right-brain consciousness" for the sake of balancing clarity and expediency (more on my thoughts on that particular notion can be found here):

Right-Brain consciousness = holism, poetic sense, and creative response.

Left-Brain consciousness = reductionism, literalism, and logical analysis.

Spirituality = emphasis on Right-Brain experience and a focus on the depth of the present moment or on an expereince beyond time, broad and inclusive sense of connection and identification, sublime emotional states, non-judgmental, open to possibilities.

Anti-spirituality = emphasis on Left-Brain experience and a focus on the past or future or the immediate moment in terms of needs and desires, narrow and exclusive sense of connection and identification, reactionary emotional states, judgmental, fearful of differences.

Mystical/Contemplative Religion = embraces spirituality and shares impressions in artistic and poetic forms, seeks balance.

Fundamentalist Religion = anti-spiritual tendencies, attempts to interpret mystical and contemplative expressions through Left-Brain analysis, seeks domination.

Mainstream Religion/Liberal Religion = attempts to reconcile tendencies and history of a sacred traditions including their more mystical and fundamentalist aspects, tend to lean more towards spirituality.

Mainstream/Conservative Religion = attempts to reconcile tendencies and history of a sacred traditions including their more mystical and fundamentalist aspects, tend to lean more towards anti-spirituality.

(One could also go on to map things such as spirituality and anti-spirituality onto to different forms on non-theism as well.)

This brief and over-simplified taxonomy has implications for how people use concepts and terms such as religion and spirituality but also those such as faith, sacred, and the like. It is worth exploring or at least having a good grasp of because if the spiritual impulse in inherently human, it is surely a good thing to guide its expression toward healthier and more beneficial forms. 

For example, look at spirituality and anti-spirituality. Now consider what "faith" might mean to those who are religious and deeply spiritual and those who are religious and strongly anti-spiritual. When people talk about the dangers of faith, they are likely talking about faith as it would be understood by anti-spiritualists/fundamentalists. Look at the quick summary for anti-spiritualism and fundamentalist religion again. Isn't it so?

But that should not be conflated with what faith looks like to spiritual people in contemplative religion. That doesn't mean you can't be critical of their understandings of faith either, but those understandings should be examined and evaluated on their own merits and not arbitrarily lumped in with the rest. 

The same goes for sacred. For anti-spiritualists and fundamentalists the sacred is reduced to forms, either words, concepts, shapes, or structures, which are then imbued with a special and exclusive power that reflects their own deep-seated fear, judgmentalism, and desire for control. In other words, their notion of the sacred is often expressed in the creation of idols to which they cling desperately and ferociously. They then tend to see other symbols of meaning or power or the sacred as rivals to be hated and destroyed. Again, check this against the summary of anti-spirituality and fundamentalism above. See what I mean?

Now try the exercise where you look at spirituality and contemplative religion and ponder what the sacred might mean in that context, from that kind of perspective.

Not quite the same, eh?

If you are curious, try this exercise out on other words associated with religion. If you really want to see a difference, apply to it a prayer, or perhaps a parable or other passage from a holy book.

Again, this isn't about getting people to convert to a religion or to even like religion. It's about understanding that spirituality is a human impulse that can manifest through the rituals and institutions we collectively refer to as religion, and that this impulse and these rituals and institutions are not all the same.

Now for a list of caveats and acknowledgements that seem appropriate as I am writing this. Yes, religion is more than rituals and institutions, it is also a worldview, an institution that can be politicized, and a mechanism for socialization and social control, to say the least. 

Yes, the name fundamentalism comes from a religious movement spanning the end of the nineteenth and the beginning of the twentieth centuries in the United States which produced the so-called "five-fundamentals" of Christianity. Yes, this was a reaction to modernism and the label has been applied to other anti-modernist backlashes in other religions, other times, and other societies. But for all of that, I still think my brief definition shows in part why there was a backlash or at least describes the form such reactions tend to take. 

Yes, it is probably impossible to find a religion, a branch of a religion, or even an individual who is "purely" spiritual or anti-spiritual, contemplative or fundamentalist, etc. But that doesn't mean some aren't very heavily weighted in favor of one side of the scale or the other.

And yes, and yes, to similar calls for clarification that may be forming in your mind. Thank you.

God delusion or God bias?

Visualization of a DTI measurement of a human ...
Visualization of a DTI measurement of a human brain. Depicted are reconstructed fiber tracts that run through the mid-sagittal plane. Especially prominent are the U-shaped fibers that connect the two hemispheres through the corpus callosum (the fibers come out of the image plane and consequently bend towards the top) and the fiber tracts that descend toward the spine (blue, within the image plane) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Originally written May 25, 2012

The premise we will be exploring here today is that peak experiences, a sense of the numinous, the health benefits of spirituality and religious faith in a higher power,  and so forth can potentially be explained solely in terms of human biology.

A few caveats first, though.  I am not claiming to represent the cutting edge of neuroscientific research or to speak for that scholarly community. The hypotheses and conjectures are based on general models and speculations about brain function and evolutionary theory.

Second, I am not attempting to prove or disprove the existence of God.

Third, I am not suggesting that the rough sketch of a model presented here is superior to other explanations. Sometimes people think that if an alternative to a view they don't like or find implausible that it is better or more correct. This is just a thought experiment. Others can judge what value it may hold and to who.

It's always good to have as many provocative yet reasonable and supportable models as possible to stimulate creativity and to challenge other models in a robust way, and I really like formulating new models within a set of interesting parameters.

The Numinous

The numinous is considered here to be a powerful sense of the sublime which can include a feeling of non-dual unity with the universe, possession by absolute acceptance and bliss, or an overwhelming sense of wonder and awe generating a sense of connection to a larger mystery. It is used in describing mystical experiences which are attributed to a vast conscious awareness which includes and subsumes reality in its entirety. This conscious awareness is sometimes referred to either as ultimate reality or a sentient being's perception of same, and in theistic religions this in turn is associated with God.

Such experiences can also be combined with claims about the association of spirituality and a sense of an overarching purpose for existence with improved mental, emotional, and physical health as evidence for the existence of higher states of reality beyond conventional material models of the universe and in some cases for the existence of God. These claims provide the empirical grounding for many arguments in favor of such higher states, which in some models are seen as different levels of awareness and integration with the divine.

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The value of the profound in the absurd

Poetry (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Originally written February 26th, 2010

Have you ever wondered why so many supposedly deep insights have an element of wackiness to them?

Any good religious or spiritual insight (and to some degree any truly profound paradigm shift in science as well) has to contain the absurd.

Ponder that.

It has to defy the logical, analytical style of comprehension, to point to that which beyond such forms of understanding. It creates the necessary space for a new way of seeing the world beyond the safe boundaries that other parts of the mind wish to create and reinforce.

Anything outside of a closed system will appear odd or absurd or even impossible from within that system. It is not captured or explained by the current set of rules and expectations in place, and so when encountering or considering such novel phenomena using available "left-brain" conceptualizations and terminology to try to grasp or contain them can create a confusing and contradictory riddle instead of a stunning new insight.

Pioneers in expanding our view of the nature of existence, of its substance and value, initially seem to be speaking and thinking incoherently because there is no common experience of their vision and no vehicle to readily make this new vision available to others.

This is where the artist comes in to play.

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