Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Naturalization of teleological language. Say what?



I’ve been tracking Bart Campolo lately and finding him well worth a listen. In a section of this podcast, about 10 minutes long, so many things are tossed around, it could take hours to develop. It’s a rapid exchange. Bart was passionate about his desire to incorporate the many voices he hears on campus while Tripp was trying to explain the value of the language of the traditions he holds so dear. Both were pointing in the same direction, but many differences need to be worked out before they can really work together toward that same goal. Or maybe there’s a third way.

Listen to the whole thing, or jump to around 20 minutes in and try to catch up. I took their words for the next 15 minutes and made these “study” questions. Some of them get expanded on later, but mostly they are left unanswered. I hope the two of them get together for more.

Questions that depend on belief

Did the human technologies of eating together, singing together and performing rituals develop naturally, through evolution, and then get incorporated into religion, or were they developed by inspired religious leaders?

Did all of that get associated with a supernatural explanation at a time when the only explanations we had were supernatural, or do they actually have a supernatural origin? Is there another explanation?

Questions that could be separated from the belief question

Did science emerge from monotheistic assumptions then move through secularization, removing the supernatural aspects?

Since we are now developing more natural explanations, is theological language being “naturalized” to apply to our teleological relationship to creation?

How are these two sets of questions related?

How does our language hold our beliefs in place?

How do we develop the language to serve the need of bringing people together to lead happier and more productive lives?






Saturday, August 13, 2016

Volf and the roots of pluralism

Part II (scroll back for part I) (Part III is on hold for the moment, maybe forever, I thought some other bloggers were going to be writing about this chapter, but that didn't materialize)

Next, I'll quote many of the same quotes Volf used when discussing Roger Williams. Williams was a Puritan from the Massachusetts Bay Colony. A few of you will remember that was long before the revolution, and even longer before Jefferson ever said anything about separation of church and state, even before slavery, but it is far removed from Columbus too. I think this would have been an amazing century to be alive, to experience the new thoughts forming around how we should govern ourselves.

Williams was the pluralist, an idea that had roots with the Anabaptists, but had little other expression throughout history. He was pluralist only when it came to politics though. He was just as excluvists as his rivals, John Cotton and John Winthrop, when it came to religion. In the end, Williams and his followers were branded the dissenters and were “purged”. A fairly peaceful purging as purges go. They founded Rhode Island. The basis of the exclusivists argument was that people needed to be compelled to follow the precepts of the government or God would be displeased and the government couldn't function. Williams agreed with “Thou shalt not kill”, but said the first few commandments were about human duties to God and that government had no business with them. He did not see this as a contradiction with the idea of being religiously exclusive.

John Winthrop wrote about the “city on a hill” they had created. That city would watch over and govern the purity of religious observance. Flogging and mutilation or even death were punishments for disobedience. This was the state's job. Williams, on the other hand, wrote “The Bloudy Tennant for Persecution of Conscious”, and defended his position.

"Sixthly, it is the will and command of God that (since the coming of his Son the Lord Jesus) a permission of the most paganish, Jewish, Turkish, or antichristian consciences and worships, be granted to all men in all nations and countries; and they are only to be fought against with that sword which is only (in soul matters) able to conquer, to wit, the sword of God's Spirit, the Word of God."

For its time, this is a radical argument for freedom of conscious. It says there is a marketplace of ideas, and it is with ideas he will fight for his god, not any other type of a sword. If that is not clear, perhaps this excerpt from a letter will help,

"First that forc’t Worshpp stincks in Gods nostrils. 2 That it denies Christ Jesus yet to be come, and makes the Church yet National, figurative and Ceremoniall. 3 That in these flames about Religion, as his Matie his Father and Grandfather have yielded, there is no prudent Christian way of preserving peace in the World but by permission of differing Consciences."

Or

"It is directly contrary to the nature of Christ Jesus, his saints and truths, that throats of men should be torne out for his sake. Who most delighted to converse with greatness sinners."

English from 4 centuries ago can be tough, but I'm sure he means Jesus conversed with sinners, so why shouldn't we. When he founded Rhode Island, he put these ideas into his State's Constitution. Historians today agree that he wrote from his heart. His convictions were what he truly felt, not mere means to social ends. He was just as excluvists, religiously, as Winthrop or Cotton. The content of faith as they saw it is what made the difference, not the firmness of their faith.

Or, as John Plamenatz of 20th century Oxford said, "Liberty of conscience was born, not of indifference, not of skepticism, not of mere open-mindedness, but of faith. The reasoning was not, because faith is important we must impose it, but because faith is supremely important all human beings must be allowed to live by the faith that they hold true."

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Discussion of Volf's pluralism



In chapter 4 of Miroslav Volf's “Flourishing: Why We Need Religion in a Globalized World”, he attempts to make the case that exclusivist religion can be compatible with pluralist politics. I'm not sure how many blogs it will take to cover this somewhat lengthy chapter. I'll begin with an overview.

The words “exlcusivist” and “pluralist” seem to make their own case against “compatible”, but his argument is thorough and compelling, complete with historical precedent. Even if he is wrong, I think the discussion of the possibility is worth the effort. Any attempt to address the current problems of fundamentalism, Christian or otherwise, deserves consideration. A program of elimination of religion or quarantining it is similar in exclusionary tactics to a program of converting everyone to believe in a particular god. A truly pluralist society consists of people with open minds, willing to engage any reasonable argument.

I have already laid several land mines for myself in that opening paragraph and I can see the jaws clenching and the eyes rolling. To allay some of those fears of hearing the same old arguments, Volf begins by noting the Puritans left the religious persecution of England, only to set up their own exclusive system in America. A seeming contradiction. He later explains how pluralism had roots in the Massachusetts Bay Colony and how the exculsivist and pluralist factions had to part company. He admits that there are limits to the use of reason by fundamentalist. That it is often used only to defend their own preconceived notions and breaks down when challenged. He quotes Popper and Rousseau. He admits not all who embrace exclusivist religion will go along with his ideas. He asks very little of the pluralist society and demands much from his fellow Christians.

When considering the possibility that religion can continue to some extent in the forms we see it now, it's important to take a broad perspective. We are decades into a movement sometimes called the Christian Right, but it is a recent phenomena and it's dominance is starting to wane. Before that, sociologist were pretty well agreed that science would continue to advance and religion would fade. Further back, people like Thomas Jefferson expected the world to move toward some form of the Unitarianism, akin to religion but without all the miracles. He was wrong about that, but he did pretty well with shaping democracy, so I'll cut him some slack. 500 years before that Aquinas attempted to reconcile Greek rationalist thought with his faith. There were other failed attempts, but the important point is that the dominant view of religion changes throughout time and we can influence that view.

In a rare moment for Christian theologians, Volf presents Peter Berger's steps toward the gradual disappearance of religious exclusivism. He contends social pluralism naturally leads to the affirmation of religious pluralism. When religious people mix with other ideologies, they experience a degree of “Cognitive contamination”. Certainly any cult leader who keeps his minions isolated knows this.
Whether this contamination is other religions or not, it eventually becomes secularism. This phenomenon could also be observed in the recent acceptance of homosexuality in America. As more and more people came to know a gay person personally, they found out they weren't so bad. The steps are:

1 Live with others
2 Learn to appreciate them
3 Realize their ways of living aren't utterly false
4 Their truth is as good as yours

Volf points out at least one flaw in Berger; not everyone makes that last step.

This is where Volf's theology steps in, providing a way to live between steps 3 and 4. He notes that the three major monotheisms and even Buddhism contain ideas not only that their god (or in Buddhism's case their ideology) is the only one, and the right one, but also that you should not be arrogant about this. If you are right, and of course you are, you should not need to boast. God will give you the strength and wisdom you need to endure the unbelievers and to convert them. Indeed, you should not fear hearing the ideas of others, you should apply the golden rule and treat those ideas with respect, just as you would expect your ideas to be treated, knowing that in the end you will prevail.

I would like to interject at this point, that Volf, throughout the entire book is notorious for ignoring large swaths of history. He never mentions the dozens of other versions of “do unto others”. I can't tell if this is purposeful or if he is actually unaware that Jesus did not invent that.

He shows a strong grasp of world history, so it is to hard understand how he could miss certain details or why he thinks them unimportant. He covers the unique aspects of Judaism and Christianity, and how they ended up being religions that grew beyond their tribal beginnings. He calls them “world” religions. Christianity for instance took a stand of consciousness against imperialist Rome. Those ideas lived on and have been adapted and used by many revolutionary cultures and oppressed groups. I would have liked it Volf did not slide past the harsh versions of that, when Christianity later partnered with empire and brutally oppressed and enforced its exclusiveness. He may think it would hinder his argument to do so, but I think it hinders his argument to not do it.

I am not suggesting that he, or anyone, meld their precious ideologies into some grand philosophy that is a mix of all human knowledge. I would like to see that, but I don't expect it to happen in my lifetime. What Volf suggests, and I would accept as a minimum, is that religions find an interpretation of their ideology that allows for co-existence with other ideologies. If they can do that, I'm fine with them hanging on to hope of a second coming, or for implementation of as many as their purity laws as they can find agreement for. As long as they maintain values of peace and order while attempting to achieve those ends, the rest of us can continue to work toward those shared values in our own ways. Hopefully we can all find ways to form partnerships and move toward those shared values.