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Thinking About Religion

Recently in the Wisdom Circle I attend we engaged a discussion on the difference between “inflexible” and “flexible” knowledge. Inflexible knowledge is when our understanding of something is fused to the particular example by which it was first introduced. We are not yet able to think of it abstractly – or in other words, apart from its concrete instantiation.

Flexible knowledge is achieved when we’ve reached an understanding of the principles informing this and conceivably all examples of the same type.

Needless to say, education needs to be committed to helping people move from inflexible to flexible knowledge in any subject. Thankfully the normal progression in brain development unfolds through a “concrete operational” stage and opens a capacity for “formal operations” and abstract reasoning by the second decade.

And yet, there are plenty of us adults whose knowledge of a subject is oddly inflexible, given the direction our brains would otherwise have us go. I could pick any number of subjects, but as it is one of my favorites in this blog, let’s consider religion.

Probably most people I know hold an inflexible knowledge of religion.

  • This may be due to the fact that their only exposure to it was back in childhood, and then only on holidays and special occasions. Now as adults they still consider religion (in this case, Christianity) through the filter of what church was like for them back then.
  • Or perhaps in their younger years they were victims of religious abuse – made to feel guilty, depraved, and hell-bound unless they submitted to church authority and “accepted Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior.” It wasn’t possible to get out fast enough, but they left with the impression of religion – again, this religion, this particular church – as repressive, judgmental, and narrow-minded.
  • And then it’s possible that their inflexible knowledge of religion is more than anything else a symptom of our modern admiration of science and secular interests. Science set us free from superstition, magical thinking, and metaphysical nonsense. All of that is religion, and we’re better off without it. Not some early or traumatic exposure, in other words, but really a lack of exposure whatsoever: just religion in general, thrown under a categorical gloss as pre-modern and culturally irrelevant.

I don’t dispute the claim that much of religion today is irrelevant. The various examples of religion we see around us do indeed appear stuck in tradition and wedded to worldviews millennia out of date. But does this mean that religion itself is obsolete?

Let’s go back to the critical distinction made above. Could it be that the widespread negative opinion on religion held by most people I know is itself a product and feature of inflexible knowledge? Let’s pretend for the sake of argument that you hold such an opinion. For you, religion is a hopeless tangle of pre-scientific notions, irrational fears, abusive authority, worn-out convictions, and otherworldly distractions – made up, let us say, of just these five threads.

Here are some questions for you to consider.

Numerous Exposures

On how many separate occasions were you confronted by all five threads of religion, as you are defining it? Maybe you think that one exposure to abusive authority was enough! I’m not suggesting that you should have stayed. But is it rational (or fair) to conclude from your one negative exposure that nothing of genuine value is to be found there?

Maybe you had numerous exposures to the same abuse in that church. Still, is it reasonable for you to transfer your indictment from that particular church to its parent religion, and from there to all religions, even to religion itself?

Different Angles

Through how many facets of religion were you confronted by all five of these threads? Examples of what I mean by an angle (or facet) would include sacred ceremony, theological instruction, moral codes, social structure, orthodox beliefs, devotional practices, and mystical experience.

Each angle of exposure renders a unique impression of what a religion is about. Has your experience of religion been multifaceted or more narrow in focus? If more narrow, is it rational of you to inflate one facet into a representation of this religion as a whole – and again, of all religions and even religion itself?

Wider Variety

How many different kinds of religion have you experienced, or even carefully studied? If you had a negative experience once, or even many times in a single religion (say the Christian church of your youth), is it logical for you to conclude that churches of other Christian denominations, or faith communities of other non-Christian religions are the same?

Exposure to a wider variety of religions forces open the conceptual frame by which you define one religion or another – unless, of course, you are ready to take just your example as “religion,” dismissing all the others as something else. But how reasonable is that?

Deeper Elements

How far under the surface features of religion have you gone, in any kind of intellectually disciplined analysis? By deeper elements I mean not only the more esoteric notions (i.e., reserved for those on the inside) and historically formative material that makes each religion unique, but (deeper still) the intuitions of presence, ground, unity, and mystery – the source-experience of religion itself.

Such intuitions may be mediated and expressed through a religion’s symbol system, but their direct experience is spontaneous and ineffable (beyond words). A disciplined analysis can break into a myth, for instance, in order to contemplate its root metaphors. But these, rather than taken literally (which by definition amounts to a denial of depth), are followed to the edge of mystery and finally released for the direct experience itself.


You can be said to possess a flexible knowledge of religion when (1) you’ve had numerous exposures to a single religion (2) from several distinct angles; when (3) you have participated across a wide variety of different religions, and successfully (4) penetrated its surface to the present mystery of reality, to the ground of your own being where all is one.

With those qualifications in place, we can now pick up our dialogue on religion.

 

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An Update for Religion?

One of the biggest complaints I have about much contemporary religion is that it obligates believers to accept (whole or in part) worldviews which are thousands of years old and wildly outdated. This isn’t my problem only, as modern thinkers (and thoughtful believers) have struggled with the relevance issue for several centuries now. For a short while we tried to divide reality into “natural” and “supernatural” realms, relegating the preoccupations of religion to the supernatural side and leaving the rest for science and everyday life.

This “partition effect” worked – but again, only for a very short while. People could go about their work-a-day business Monday through Saturday, and then check their common sense at the door before entering church on Sundays. Once inside, the archaic mythology underpinning their rituals, hymns, doctrines, confessions and prayers was accepted as truth. Jesus came down from heaven, paid the penalty for our sins, was raised to life again and went back to heaven. Soon he’ll be coming again. Inside the church it all made sense.

But outside the church this vocabulary became increasingly strained in its fit to the concerns and challenges of daily life. The remarkable successes of a more secular (this-worldly) orientation, with its principal values of reason and critical thinking, controlled observation and evidence, rationality and sound logic, were making religion’s defense of the supernatural, an external god, historical miracles, and an infallible tradition of truth harder and harder to accept, much less understand. True believers found it necessary to cut themselves off from mainstream culture and establish protected communities where traditional ways could be enforced.

Today, this cut-off is going on inside the personality of true believers who don’t necessarily want to give up the conveniences and opportunities of contemporary life for a backwater monastery in the woods. They are able somehow to read with enthusiasm on Thursday the latest discoveries of astronomy as they commit themselves on Sunday to the three-story cosmos of the Bible. Biblical fundamentalists around the world download the latest smartphone applications and invest in the stock market as they look into the clouds for the imminent return of Jesus.

For the sake of sanity, many are picking up their common sense on the way out of church and not going back. Some regret losing the community and occasional inspiration they enjoyed there, but the sacrifice of intellectual integrity is just not worth it anymore. The failure of their religion to stay current with evolving ideas, new discoveries, and advancing values is making it necessary to leave it behind. If at the historical threshold of modernity it was the demand for Reason that emptied churches, in our generation the search for Relevance is doing the same.

So let’s engage a conversation on the topic of relevance, which is defined as “connected to the matter at hand” – in this case, the matter of living meaningfully and productively in a world described by science, characterized by pluralism, and increasingly organized around the global values of security, sustainability, fair trade, and human rights. Where does religion fit into the picture, if it even has a place anymore? To answer that question I need to tell a story, one that helps us see what relevance religion may still have, and where it goes wrong.

Truth Systems

The beginning of religion is not in supernatural revelation. Remember, this partition effect is a peculiarly modern strategy designed to safeguard the old metaphysics (an external deity, immortal souls, heaven and hell) from the incursions of science and common sense. Even the myths are not the proper origins of religion; they come later, as secondary reflection and artistic expression of a more primal experience.

The essence of this primal experience is what we (ought to) mean by faith – the full surrender (or trust) of one’s existence to the provident support of reality. While this absolute trust might translate into a confident hope for tomorrow’s provision, the deepest truth here has to do with a present-moment uplift of what the mystics call the ground of being. This uplift is experienced in the faithful rhythms of our breath, our heartbeat, and the background hum of consciousness. Certain meditative practices assist in the centering (or contemplative) descent along an interior axis of focused attention, where the practitioner breaks into an inner space of expanded awareness, profound peace, and calm presence.

This experience of Real Presence (or present reality) transpires below the brain regions involved in language and objective thought, which makes it inherently “beyond words” or ineffable. The grounding mystery is therefore not some thing we can talk about, even though we may refer to it metaphorically as ground. At this level it is purely about the experience, not what it means. An individual “has faith” to whatever extent he or she is able to be fully present, let go of self, and sink deeply into communion with being-as-such.

Now, if this doesn’t sound anything like the religion of our churches (and temples and mosques), that’s because it isn’t. Faith and the mystical experience are the spring that brings living water to the surface of life in the world. Religion is the system of utilities that carries this spiritual refreshment and perspective into the relationships, commitments, and business of daily life. By a network of symbols, rituals, and stories, religion organizes a society and keeps it “linked back” (religare) to the provident support of the grounding mystery.

In my diagram above, a vertical line connects the faith experience and our knowledge of the universe. (Ignore for now the fact that this line is ruptured in the middle by something called belief and orthodoxy; I’ll come back to that.) An unbroken vertical connector suggests a strong link between the ineffable ground and the qualified universe – or in other words, between the silent communion of faith and the numberless distinctions (qualities) we can observe in the extended context of our environment.

This connection is the likely source of our word “universe,” which refers to the single-turning unity of everything. The very concept of universe, then, is itself an expression and representation of an insight grasped by intuition in the deep experience of faith. Its oneness isn’t evident to the senses; indeed our sense awareness is stretched across a boundless diversity of seemingly unrelated phenomena. But faith – and again, by this I mean deep and total self-surrender to communion with the present mystery of reality – confirms that all things are manifestations of the one grounding mystery. It all turns together and is essentially one.

A long time ago perhaps, the human view on reality (our sense of the universe) was like a holy picture in stained glass: the radiance of being (the grounding mystery) shone out through multiplicity of beings. Science and spirituality were the outlook and insight, respectively, of a holistic intelligence. The stories (myths) of religion were relevant narratives that nourished the communion of outer and inner life. Gods were depicted as personified agencies behind the events of nature, inviting humans into a relationship of reverence, stewardship, responsibility, wonder and celebration.

Over time and with new discoveries our understanding of the universe changed. It got bigger and more complicated, but simultaneously simpler to explain by virtue of mathematical logic and an experimental method. The inward turn of contemplative meditation continued to support our need for mystical communion and mindful balance, but advances in science placed a growing strain on the traditional stories and assumptions of religion. Religion fell behind. Under the added strain, it gripped down with stubborn insistence on the truth of its myths and consequently fell still farther behind.

Eventually, in the interest of a productive and relevant life in the world, the claims of religion were relegated to their own realm, sufficiently outside the range of evidence and practically useless to the secular concerns of society. Thus partitioned, it was left to the clerics and theologians to decide which doctrines were absolutely necessary for a successful escape from this (now fallen and sinful) world to an everlasting security in the next. These necessary doctrines were neither articles of knowledge nor genuine expressions of faith, but rather beliefs, which means that they required an emotional investment in order to carry any meaning.

To believe is to pretend that something is so, to proceed as if it is the case. Because our knowledge of the universe is and will always be incomplete and provisional, we humans frequently find ourselves in the position of having to make judgments on the basis of insufficient information.

Philosophy and science have learned the wisdom of regarding such judgments as hypotheses, explanations treated as predictions, to be tested against careful observation in the field. By checking the facts, a prediction will either be disproved or advanced for further testing. An explanation that survives such scrutiny – preferably under controlled variables and across numerous trials – is awarded the status of knowledge.

Once upon a time, the beliefs of religion did fit into our general knowledge of the universe and our place in it. But as our world-picture changed, the mythological accounts couldn’t update as quickly. Patron deities either needed to be (1) left in the past when their myths and corresponding worldview were relevant, (2) reconsidered in light of evolving knowledge and new experience, or (3) recharged by a forced allegiance to orthodoxy (“right belief,” authorized by those in control). Believe it anyway, because if you don’t, you can’t be saved.

Faith was gradually (and almost imperceptibly) redefined from the act of full surrender to the provident mystery of reality, to a set of beliefs or tenets – the “true faith” of this or that denomination. Orthodoxy became a well-defended and airtight fortress of belief. (I’ve put the word in a box above to illustrate the point.)

But whatever is airtight is also out of touch, at risk of losing currency and dying inside. What can religion do? So much has been sacrificed, so much committed for the sake of the institution and its future. To pull down the curtain and give up on the supernatural would mean “the death of god,” would it not? To re-read the myths with a sensitivity to metaphor would require us to listen deeply to the same intuitions in ourselves that first inspired our ancestors to story them forth. It might mean that we need to tell new stories, different myths, sacred narratives that are relevant to our situation today.

It might be asking too much. We shall see.

 

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