Hocus-pocus-less religion?


Here’s a good question: "[I]s religion just an old-fashioned social network in a world full of new social opportunities? "

This is more important to me than I can fully express. I know that a large number of people go to church because that’s their "second family", or perhaps even their first. It is a place where you can mingle with like-minded individuals.

It irks me, but it is a fact. Most of these good church-going folk are there to mingle not to worship – at least no in the strict sense of the word. In the end there is a clear disconnect between the practices on a Sunday and the purposes of the attendees.

I have been reading around issues of Process theology. At this early (v. early) stage I have a lot of sympathy with it. There is much in classical theology which does not speak to me. Some of it tends to be a lot of effort in re-explaining the beliefs of ancestors in the faith with modern language – rather akin to a new translation of the Bible. While intellectually this is both satisfying and a worthy exercise, existentially it is not that profitable. It does clarify the sandbox which we have defined as "orthodox" but I am not sure it helps me answer the question as to why play in this sandbox when there is a whole beach out there? Process theology seems to want to take a hard look at that beach, which is nice.

I feel more comfortable with the Whiteheadian idea that God’s "power" is not one of "control" (traditional omnipotence) but as "influence", as aptness to both influence and be influenced by one’s relationships. In my view god seduces rather than commands. it is hard to understand "commanded love", but much more probably that there is seduction.

The Process guys (and I am muddy in all of this) say that God is doubly related to all things: he is the object of every subject, and the subject of every object (that does sound mystical!). God is fully felt by all things and fully feels all creation…or, to use traditional language, God is fully transcendent and fully immanent.

But I get easily bored with semantics. I am a Wisdom kind of guy. What is the use of all of this? Well, it gives a new perspective to life, doesn’t it? The future is unknown by both myself and God. Granted, just as I can with a certain degree predict the future, especially my future, God can also do the same with a LOT more knowledge! But, fundamentally, God does not know all and is in this journey WITH me. And that’s the second point: the relationship between myself and God could not possibly be closer, and God walks step-by-step with me through all trials and tribulations, joys and successes. That is good news!

Apparently one of Whitehead’s chief goals was to practice natural or "general" theology. One of its premises is that the Incarnation tells us nothing about God that cannot be known by examining the structure of human experience. Oof! This is a big bone to chew on. What are the implications of such a statement? One of the consequences (and here’s where it links back to this article) is that Christianity is not based on the supernatural (traditionally called "special revelation").

If this is the case, and it is a BIG "if", then it would mesh well with the author’s hope that "[p]erhaps mythology will give way to elegant metaphysics, creating a sort of Religion 2.0, wherein authority comes from reason and philosophy instead of the supposed revelations of a divine being."

This touches at another very interesting topic. One man’s metaphysics is another’s mythology, I guess. My bone of contention is that of criticism. If I approach a secular text, let’s say a modern philosopher, and critique it based on its lack of universal maxims, or supernatural stories, then it will fail. Does that mean I have to discard it? Conversely, to approach a religious text and critique it from an evidential approach is disingenuous at best.

It is worth clicking on the link in the article and read the other essay on "Can religion survive without all the hocus-pocus?" While the whole essay itself is rather weak and more often than not begs the question (as for e.g. when the author says: "Without Yahweh behind them, the ten commandments would be seen as a fairly pointless, and even silly, list of suggestions." really?), the main focus is with what I call secular Buddhism, or American Buddhism. This desire to take the health benefits accrued from Buddhist practice and do away with the theology.

One of my concerns, as an outsider to Buddhism, is the large amount of Buddhist jerks who are faithful in their meditative practices, but precisely because they can drop the "unnecessary" bits are not exactly living up to the highest standards of their path.

It goes without saying that the same is true of Christianity (and all other beliefs).

The main point of this article is the concept of mystical experience. Personally I am very suspicious of anyone who claims them. Most people I know are the same. Here’s where we critique in a positive way our ancestors in the faith. Mystical experiences are not available to all. In fact I would say they are available to practically none. But, most importantly, they are not needed for a functional and non-hypocritical practice of religion.

If, at its core, all religions requires mystical axioms (and they do) how is that different than any other form of human knowledge? Any deductive system (and religion surely is one) at some point butts heads with Godel and will have at its core a set of propositions that can neither be proved nor disproved from the given set of axioms. The best we can look for is consistency.

The argument, seems to me, about a choice of deductive systems rather than an argument about whose axioms are "better". Different systems propose to answer different questions. Religions seem to want to answer questions of human relationships: between self and existence as a whole, and between self and other.

Philosophical ethics, without theism, goes a long way in answering questions of the quality of relationships between self and other. The hard nut to crack is the question of self-existence.

Conclusion: "We may not necessarily be hardwired for mystical experiences, but we are hardwired to benefit from a robust belief system shared by our peers and a contemplative spiritual practice, even if not necessarily a theistic one. Where we’re headed is unlikely to be completely sacred, but it’s probably not going to be entirely profane, either."


About spaceloom

An urban monk, and an experienced spiritual director with a Masters in Psychology. Married with two children. Want to know me better? Read my thoughts.
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