Posts tagged ‘religion’

I feel like there is more I should think about, but it hasn’t gone anywhere for the last week, and I’m quite preoccupied at present. I don’t want to wait a few years this time ;^)

Blair Reynold’s response

Yes, I did send it to you in response to your online material. Great to hear back from you. It has been a while. I always enjoy getting a blast from the past, which sometimes does happen in my e-mails. And I’m glad you found my material interesting. You seemed to do a pretty good job of picking up in the main points.

I am a process theologian, and process theology is a very technical branch of theology. I’ve been going online, trying to make it as easy as I can for laity. If you have any questions, please let me know.

You raised a point about emotion. As you are probably aware, in the West, we generally take a dim view of emotion, seeing it as something wholly subjective, just floating around in our own heads, irrational, etc. I take a more favorable view. I view emotion as our most basic experience. At rock bottom, all experience is basically unconscious affective flux. It’s emotion that bridges the gap between the “out there” and the “in here.” Our experience of connectedness with the rest of reality, our experience of causality, is primarily an affective one. We do not see the puff of air make the eye blink, but we do feel it do so. So, if principles are to have any real meaning, they must be rooted in some more primal, affective level of experience.

I think that principles have meaning because they point to a consistency in the universe. Everything is a synthesis of both consistency and change. That means principles can reflect reality, but, of course, only in very abstract way. If you describe me as a lifelong train buff, which I am, you have pointed to something unchanging or absolute about me. However, that isn’t the whole story. You need to say more, to fully describe me. Now that I and can operate a steam locomotive, I’m not the same trainbuff I was 20 years ago. See what I mean?

It is true that I did not introduce any “proofs” for the existence of God, and was largely pointing to a God who would fulfill our quest for meaningfulness. However, in a way, that is a proof. We all seek and need meaning, and from what I see in reality, the system that generates the need generally satisfies it, so there must be a God. And this brings me to the knowability of God. A totally unknowable God would not be fulfilling, hardly beautiful. At the same time, a totally knowable God would be boring, too much like us to be interesting. If we are going to have a beautiful relationship with God, and I don’t see the point of having a God if we cannot do that, then God must be alike and yet different from us, knowable and also unknowable, mysterious.

Getting back to the issue of whether God is beyond all perception: I believe God is a concrete item in all experience. By virtue of the mutual sensitivity of all things, every entity is present, incarnate in every other, and this also includes God. Hence, God is a concrete item in any and all experience. We subconsciously experience a very direct, immediate flow of God’s feelings into ourselves. It is precisely because of this experience, that people came up with the notion of God. All our concepts, however imaginative they may be, always go back to some actual encounter with reality.
You are correct. I am viewing God as a personal being, a single, individual personality which is a synthesis of al personalities in the universe. To me, anything less than that, viewing God as, say, just as impersonal principle, depersonalizes and dehumanizes us.

My immediate response
> I am a process theologian, and process theology is a very technical branch

That’s interesting. A friend of mine who attended seminary said my viewpoint would be classified as process theology and pantheist. Perhaps this is unsurprising, given there was some degree of agreement between us.

>laity. If you have any questions, please let me know.

The main point I gathered from the wikipedia article was that god was not completely omnipotent, but did exert a continuous action (process) on the world toward a better state.

> You raised a point about emotion. As you are probably aware, in the West, we generally take a dim view of emotion, seeing it as something wholly

One of my reservations in responding was a certainty that I’d get caught out on one or more points, and I was right. I dismissed emotion on stereotype, without any further reflection on what it was and how that might apply.

> that bridges the gap between the “out there” and the “in here.” Our experience

If I follow you, emotion is the first level of mental processing, one step beyond raw sensory perception. Would you then hold that god has some immediate reaction to the changing state of the world, which would be his changing affective states?

>but we do feel it do so. So, if principles are to have any real meaning, they must be rooted in some more primal, affective level of experience.

A principle, in so far as we understand it, is a human invention which arises from human experience. Sort of what happens when the higher mental processes get ahold of things and try to make sense of them. If emotion is the shape of experience, this makes sense.

> I think that principles have meaning because they point to a consistency in

Meaning that while emotions may have an uncertainty about them, repeatability over time and space points to something ‘real’?

> the universe. Everything is a synthesis of both consistency and change.

So there is a sort of momentum or gravity that pulls on some changing position or state, which is also moved by other forces.

> meaningfulness. However, in a way, that is a proof. We all seek and need

Is this at all close to your philosophy?: “Humanity, through experience, comes to recognize certain principles of the world: gravity, solid/liquid/gas, life, etc. We generally consider these things to be ‘real’ because they accord with our experience. Humanity also tends to create god(s), and by the same reasoning, this points to something ‘real’”

> God must be alike and yet different from us, knowable and also unknowable, mysterious.

This seems to be an argument for why we describe god the way we do. It only takes on the force of reality in combination with the previous argument, that what we create must be a glimpse of deeper reality.

> God’s feelings into ourselves. It is precisely because of this experience,

Would you consider god the source of the subjectivity that humanity perceives in emotions?

> You are correct. I am viewing God as a personal being, a single, individual personality which is a synthesis of al personalities in the universe. To me, anything less than that, viewing God as, say, just as impersonal principle, depersonalizes and dehumanizes us.

Would it be at all accurate to say “If god is the sum of the whole universe, he cannot be less than any of the component parts. Therefore, if we are personal beings, god is (at least) a personal being.”?

Response to Blair Reynolds, The Doctrine of God

(Quite) a while back, I received a response of sorts to my personal interpretation of the word god I believe I actually fished this response out of the abandoned mail in my copy of windows eudora, which I found I could import into gmail. Back during my fit of writing ideas (2008-02), I pulled it out of the archives and put it in the queue. The actual writing of my response has been during the last week.

Looking over the message again, I realized it might be a published article rather than a personal response. Indeed this seems to be the case, as a search turns up several copies, such as this one.

I suppose I was reluctant to respond because the essay is thick with technical theological terms, implying a corpus of knowledge with which I have no familiarity. The copy I linked above includes a short biography, which indicates that Blair Reynolds does in fact have a doctorate in theology. I can still agree or disagree however, regardless of what the academics think of it.

On the whole, the essay has a number of interesting points, and seems to agree about as well with my philosophy as a it can in a theistic context (used only to mean “in contrast to atheistic” – I don’t know if it may carry other meanings as a technical term).

First part:

‘Unbiblical’ isn’t a very strong argument for me. Given translation, editing, and other effects of time, it’s hard to trust that the bible of today is the same as it was when first written. And even then, how it differs substantially from anything written today. Not useless of course – deep reflection on many works will produce insight, and the world’s holy books carry a long history of recommendation as sources of inspiration. But I’m not going to spend too much time splitting hairs on the description of a being beyond perception.

Perhaps I should step back a bit. My definition puts god as a quality of the universe instead of a being. If we take the bible as the distilled wisdom of the ages, and it’s description of god as describing the property of virtuous order, it might be more interesting. The statement “God is incarnate throughout the entire universe, which functions as his body.” fits reasonably with this view.

The questions raised become fertile ground for further reflection. The main issue here is whether god is changing or unchanging. Ask instead whether the principle of order is changing or unchanging, and it becomes as profound to me as perhaps the question about god is to a theist.

I think the thing that bothers me most about theistic position is _beingness_, especially the “changing affective states”. I don’t see emotion in a principle. Unless, perhaps, you view the order as a human invention (name for a collection of phenomenon) and the mood as a reflection of the collective mood of humanity.

Second part:

Argues that the attributes of god are reflected in his creation, which in turn reveals aspects of the creator (made in his own image?) The middle part of this section seems somewhat hesitant, talking on both sides of many issues and not really picking either.

Surrounding that ambiguity are the interesting ideas “Moment to moment, we are different persons” and “what is beautiful in one context or era may not be in another” This reminds me of the Quecha (Mayan) idea of pacha, or time-place. You can change your scenery by moving, or by waiting, but the one thing you can’t do is hang on to the same thing forever, it will never be quite the same twice. (Aside: it occurs to me that much of computing, and science in general, is composed of efforts to resist this effect.)

If we view the order as a human artifact, this is clearly true. As humanity changes, the definition of a well ordered and beautiful world changes. This raises an interesting question: if the definition of a thing is constantly changing, can we even usefully talk about whether a thing changes, if the name never refers to the same thing twice?

Going back to the first part about seeing the creator in the created, the circularity is dizzying. As a human concept, the idea of god or ultimate order reveals more about the definers than the defined. Yet we see this as a quality of the universe, exactly that which has given rise to ourselves, which itself seems to reveal the pattern.

Third part:

This is a mostly theistic argument. Perhaps I like it so much because it so beautifully attacks another theistic argument. If god is unchanging, life has no meaning, because nothing you can ever do can affect god, the one true and ultimate thing in the universe. The whole concept of free will can be likened to the old adage of a tree falling in the forest.

Of course the argument doesn’t actually prove anything about god – just which view we as humans in search of meaning find more comforting.

There is one qualifier, however. Even if we can’t ‘change’ a thing by talking about it, we can change how we define it (edit our own beliefs) which in turn affects how we interact with that thing. Maybe we can’t change god/reality, but our beliefs about these things can have a profound affect on our daily lives. For more mundane things (or if you believe that the essential is itself changeable) those interactions have ripple effects. Consider the Obama effect, a race performance gap that disappeared all but overnight after Obama won the party nomination.

And how does this affect my worldview? I can’t change the nature of the universe though logical discourse anymore than one can change god through logical discourse. But I do select particular facets of the universe and call them good or bad. If you specify these facets precisely enough, these principals can be considered constant. Whether those principals are ‘important’ or ‘good’ is not necessarily constant.

Once you’ve picked a set of principals, you can say the world express those principals to greater or lesser degrees, and this degree is subject to our influence. The world is also filled with other conscious beings like ourselves who experience joy or suffering in proportion to this agreement.

Perhaps a more biting reflection is that a world with an unchanging god is essentially undistinguishable from a world without god. For me the conclusion is the same in both cases: with no ultimate judge, what matters is the well-being of ourselves and our fellow travelers.

Fourth part:

Treats directly the concept of whether god is a part of the world, or apart from the world. Another thing I’ve never liked about theism – something apart from the world is beyond perception, and beyond knowing. Such an untestable concept is just the kind which would be used by a charlatan seeking to control a mass of people. Since I can’t trust that this isn’t the case, I can’t accept any idea of god that places him beyond question (or rather, beyond answer)

While the offered argument seems reasonable, it doesn’t do any more to assuage my fears – even with god part of the world, he is still beyond knowing.

Fifth part:

The monopolar prejudice, or ascribing one aspect to god and the opposite aspect to the the rest of the world. I agree that if there is any ultimate nature to the world, it must contain all aspects of that world.

"Did you know Jesus Christ died for your sins?"

I love my aunt. She amuses me. She also makes me think sometimes.

For all that the aforementioned question and it’s variants are ridiculed, the simple fact is I don’t have a good answer to them – ‘no’ is more likely an invitation to further persuasion than anything.

Let’s review my personal philosophy, for those just joining us. God is a convenient way of referring to the wholeness of beauty and order in the universe. I don’t attribute will and intention to this concept. Religious texts are not literal, but more like fables that contain the accumulated wisdom of humanity. Their long and prosperous currency attests to the fact that quite a lot of people find strength and guidance in the stories. The stories of Jesus in particular are part of the environment I was raised in, but largely I’ve given them no special attention. I have, however, made some reflections on the concept of death and resurrection as a metaphor, which is a major part of the Jesus mythos.

Now, let’s review my dear aunts arguments and ideas. The expected conclusion is that I agree with the underlying moral, but differ in the key element of not believing that the stories are literally true.

-Jesus died for the sins of humanity.

It quickly becomes apparent that my review above has not defined Jesus to the depth required by the following discussion. The first idea is Jesus (part divine, i.e. perfect) is the image of perfect man, an archetype to each each person can compare himself to judge the rightness of an action (a.k.a., W.W.J.D.) This doesn’t seem to be especially promising in the matter at hand. You might say that Jesus, being perfection, was ‘slain’ by sin or imperfection. This line of analogy becomes more fruitful when we consider that Jesus was crucified BY men – the sinful ones, or simply sin. The divine principle, the path of righteousness, is overturned the by selfish sinful tendencies. But, just as Jesus rises again, so can righteous behavior arise in men. Indeed, to some extent to be a living person at all is be a dead version of a perfect person. The possibility of rebirth into divine grace is a pretty powerful theme. This reasoning is slightly unsatisfying, however, because it completely ignores the sacrifice theme.

-Only because Jesus led a righteous life, was he a worthy sacrifice to accomplish the redemption of humanity.

The worthy sacrifice idea got me thinking of something I’m sure is high heresy in many circles. Jesus was human; he was like unto ourselves. Jesus was divine, he shared in the aspect of the highest thing, the greatest thing, the center of the universe. Now, what might be the center of a person’s universe, especially a person who has ‘strayed from the path’? Himself. “Me first.” THE self; a human thing, holding the highest regard possible. So long as the self holds that highest position, it may be, true righteousness is impossible. All those ‘sinful’ behaviors are tied in one’s self definition, seemly impossible to separate. Now return to the death and resurrection theme; only by sacrificing “god’s son”, the most important thing in world, is rebirth possible. We are still lacking the idea “only because Jesus lived righteously was he a worthy sacrifice” however (the former idea even runs kind of counter to it.)

Of course I don’t remember the exact words used, (and the exact words of a 2000 year old story are a lost cause anyway) so I’m going to rephrase that slightly “only because Jesus lived righteously was he able to sacrifice himself for humanity.” This is going to explore another angle of the sacrifice of self. Only because Jesus had achieved a certain level of moral awareness was he able to make the ultimate sacrifice – the self – and dedicate himself to uplifting his fellow man. The death and resurrection are metaphorical – he sacrificed himself, but kept on living in service to humanity. Very much like a Bodhisattva who forestalls nirvana to aid others on the path.

-Sin began with Adam and reached a kind of conclusion with Jesus.

The main thing I found interesting here is that the both the beginning of sin and the possibility of redemption are placed on individuals, even though they apply to humanity as the whole. Individuals are far easier handles for the transmission of otherwise abstract ideas. (Essay: define sin and redemption without recourse to examples.) That sin began with the first man places it as an inherent quality of humanity. That redemption was not possible until Jesus may be extreme; probably he elucidated slightly more reliable method for achieving it.

-You either have to accept Jesus words as the literal truth, or call him a liar.

This apparent dilemma is founded on a number of assumptions.

That Jesus actually existed. Heck if I know what happened 2000 years ago.

That Jesus’ divine nature makes lying either impossible, or any lie invalidates everything he said (even the parts that have been giving people strength and guidance for millenia) thereby making that option untenable.

That these are the only two options. He might for instance have been insane – fully believing what he said, without it being what we would call empirically true.

That the stories have come down to us through 2000 years of translation and editing – by human beings to whom falsehood is neither impossible, or for that matter especially uncommon – unchanged.

One could go on. In total I’ve ended up where I expected to. I’m no more convinced of the literal truth of the stories; to some extent even less because they work so much more powerfully as metaphor than history. Meanwhile, a little reflection on a sliver of humanity’s wisdom has probably done me good, and I’m better armed for “the question” ;^)

“Did you know Jesus Christ died for your sins?”

“I’ve heard that story. It is a good story.”

Death and resurrection

A few days ago I had a little sliver of insight into the prevalence of death and resurrection myths. To die and be reborn is to have the opportunity to leave some things behind, but still go on living.

Over time we tend to gather up a lot of cruft. Rename it to something more flattering if you like, but the point is that over time people tend to settle in to certain habits and patterns of thinking, which they may or may not consider beneficial. Appearing only slowly, these tendencies tend to creep up on you. By the time you even notice they are there, the habits are fully ingrained, they are part of you. Sometimes, even part of you self identity. Something that seems as though it cannot be separated from you until death.

So, die the metaphorical death. Leave your dusty old self behind and charge forward into life with a new unburdened self image. “Sure, there used to be someone who wasted his time cooking, but he died. Too many hobbies? Dead. I do two things and do them well.”

In the mythological aspect, one example should be quite sufficient:
The son of god dies for the sins of man. He is reborn to the righteous life and so ascends to heaven.

Now lets reconsider this as a story of personal transformation, using my own personal secret decoder ring:
God – the universal principal of beauty and order in the universe. Quality, Tau, Life, Goodness, etc.
Son of god – man, and in particular I, am in incarnation of the god principle. I contain everything that is wonderful in the world; I am worthy and powerful.
The sins of man – containing the god principal doesn’t mean perfecting it. Some actions, sins, run counter to it.
Dies and is reborn – after gaining understanding of the god principal, one ceases the ‘sinful’ life and begins living the righteous life.
Righteous life – broadly speaking, living harmoniously with one’s fellow man and environment.
Heaven – the perfect state of the world, where everyone lives in harmony with the god principal. Each person who embraces right living brings the world one tiny step closer to heaven.

(I didn’t entirely plan the extended decomposition there, but having neglected to use the example in the first part, there was nothing left to do but put it center stage.)