What’s in a Name?: Is ‘God’ in Need of Upgrade or Obsoletion?

I must admit I’m certainly not one of the most original thinkers; a thinker? yes, original? probably not so much. I try to counter-act my apparent lack of originality by at least being well-read. I’m usually reading between 5-7 books simultaneously and I scour the Internet and social media for articles of interest with the hopes of happening upon an unseen connection that may spark a bit of inspiration.

In one of many meanderings into social media and forays into the world-wide-web of information I came across an article on Michael Dowd‘s website entitled, “God is Reality Personified, Not a Person.” A great title for sure and an intriguing read.
In the article Dowd’s primary thesis is simply this: “God is not a person; God is a mythic personification of reality…not an invisible friend or otherworldly entity.” Agreed! He goes on to specify that “ALL images and concepts of God are more or less meaningful interpretations and personifications.” Anthropologically speaking, this point simply can’t be overemphasized.
In this regard, Dowd highlights the fact that “we humans have always been in an inescapable relationship with a Reality that we could neither fully predict nor control.” Similarly, I do think the concept of ‘God’ was an important stepping stone in the evolution of humanity. At one time it was an idea that held an immense functionality (Prof. Lloyd Geering gives a wonderful talk on precisely this point, you can find it here). It served as what Ken Wilber might call a “Theory of Everything”. However, as Wilber explains a good theory of everything is “not fixed or final” but, rather is one “that has served its purpose if it helps you get to a better one” (xiii). In other words, ‘God’ functioned as a kind of a prehistoric/ancient innovative technology, and like most technologies, over time may have become outdated, outmoded, and obsolete. In this regard, I wonder if perhaps theologians, in their total reliance upon what they believe to be the necessary preservation of the ‘God’ hypothesis, are, in effect, trying to force dial-up to function optimally within a Broadband world.
It seems that many theologians and religious thinkers, whether liberal or conservative, radical, orthodox, or heterodox, weave such an elaborate, complex, and, an often contradictory tapestry in an effort to make the idea of ‘God” work, one cannot help but think to ask, “if it takes such an immense amount of effort and strain to justify a particular idea, perhaps the idea itself is fundamentally flawed?” Even though I have garnered much from various theological thinkers and many religious academic or intellectuals, I still wonder if ‘theology’ carries far too much baggage to be genuinely helpful and if ‘God’ is far too value-laden to be of use. Paul Van Buren goes so far as to suggest suggests that terms such as ‘theology’ and ‘God’ are “either meaningless or misleading.” Thus, the more I have ventured into the studies of history, human origins, language, ethology, ethnology, neurobiology, evolutionary psychology, and ecology, the more I think that Geering has a point, perhaps as he suggests ALL ‘talk’ regardless of what it is about cannot be anything other than ‘human talk’, and ‘theology’ is nothing other than anthropology (Geering, 3). (This is not to say, however, that I think that there are not paths to think beyond the ‘human’; see The Ecological ThoughtEcology Without NatureLarvel Subjects.)
It seems then, (although I may be mistakenly oversimplifying) that we have one of three options. Though I can’t say at this time which if any of the three are better or more helpful:
1) neologism  –  in this case that is re-naming ‘God’, inventing new words, phrases, concepts, or ideas to be used in place of ‘God’.  This seems to only offer more confusion rather than more clarity, as it would only be an elite or select few that would maintain any sense of familiarity. Here, I think of Caputo’s “Event”. This is a beautiful concept but, as a friend of mine astutely observed, “what everyday person hears the word ‘God’ and thinks of the event?”
2) re-appropriation – in other words, preserving the verbiage, rhetoric, and ‘name’ of ‘God’ while reformulating its contents and meaning. For example, another friend of mine takes the Paulinian idea, “God IS Love” quite literally, suggesting that whenever and wherever there is love, there is God. In his usage Love is God. Here, he simply uses “God” as a kind of symbolic place holder/synonym for love. While I can sympathize with this move to an extent and while I’m sure this re-appropriation works for him individually. I think it similarly succumbs to the same pitfalls of neologism. There seems to be a break down of practicality, praxis, and performance. We simply do not engage with “god” and “love” in interchangeable ways when observing the realm of everyday religious practice. Love is a verb, not a noun, personal or proper. Love is not and should not be an ‘object’ of devotion, worship, prayer, veneration, or observance. Love is an action, it is enacted, it is performative. (But, in this idea’s defense, perhaps, ‘God’ needs to go through a re-verbing process.)
Dowd, too, alludes to a kind re-appropriation in his article:
[W]e see an enigmatic power operative in our everyday lives, giving us our life and all good gifts yet also limiting us in nearly every conceivable way, and finally taking our lives away. This is real life! This is reality as it really is, whether or not we like it. There can be no argument whether or not this reality exists. If you don’t want to call it a power, call it a force, an up-against-ness, or simply the universe as it really is. As Bultmann points out in his essay, we are not talking about some metaphysical idea here. We are talking about an unavoidable actuality. Words may fail us, but we all know this reality intimately, personally.

Here, Dowd says that “For me to look into the awe-filling fullness of life and pronounce the name “God” means a commitment of my life to reality-based living…Reality is my God, evidence is my scripture, and integrity (living in right relationship with reality and helping others do the same) is my religion.” Yet, Dowd, when quoting Rudolf Bultmann. poses what I think is an important question to consider: “Why call this mysterious power ‘God’? Why give the enigma, the mystery that drives us this way and that and hedges us in, any other name but ‘the enigma’, or ‘fate’?” These are questions I have constantly asked myself when it comes to ‘God’. Perhaps, we should simply let our yes be yes and our no be no, in other words, perhaps, we should simply let ‘Love’ be love, let love stand on its own two feet, unmasked and unfettered. Why can’t we simply let the enigma be the enigma and let mystery be mystery? Are these not strong enough ideas and words on their own? Or am I being hypocritical here? Elsewhere I have written about how much I admire the philosophical use of language, that is, the way in which philosophy dramatical alters the meaning, significance, and content of common place everyday language in ways that are then anything but ordinary.

Finally…
3) rejection/abandonment – letting go of ‘God’, disengaging from its usage, dismissing its utilization, and declining its employment. Many credible thinkers that are steeped in theology suggest just such a route (Geering, Cupitt, etc.). This needn’t be an antagonistic maneuver. It can be reverent as it can recognize that these ‘theorizations’ have been useful in the past but, they have served their purpose.
 As a committed non-theist/atheist I must confess that I greatly lean towards rejection and abandonment, as I have no use spiritual or transcendent aspects of ‘God’ but, as an equally committed academic student of religion I still recognize that there is a kind of ‘power’ and magnanimity in the word and concept of ‘God’, especially in its ability to encapsulate and evoke that which is of ultimate concern.  I cannot say with any absolute certainty that complete rejection is actually the best way forward. I am simply unsure. Consider the immense immanence, materiality, and earthenness found in the following passage by Zen Buddhist priest Brad Warner from his book Hardcore Zen:
 
Everything is sacred. Every blade of grass, every cockroach, every speck of dust, every flower, every pool of mud outside a graffiti-splattered warehouse is God. Everything is a worthy object of worship…Truth announces itself when you kick away a discarded bottle of Colt 45 Malt Liquor. Truth rains on you from the sky above, and God forms in puddles at your feet. You eat God and excrete truth four hours later. Take a whiff—what a lovely fragrance the truth has! Truth is reality itself. God is reality itself. Enlightenment, by the way, is reality itself. And here it is.

Do we replace the word ‘God’? Do we invent whole new trajectories of ‘God’ language? Do we maintain its usage, its structure, and completely overhaul, renovate, and remodel its interior content? Or do we simply walk away, tip our hats, count our losses, and make for the exits, discarding the verbiage by the wayside as mile marker monument to where we have been and how far we have come as a species and culture? I don’t know…

What’s in a name? But, more importantly, where do we go from here?
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The Fray: A Weaver’s Dilemna

Almost a week ago I came across a blog post that an associate of mine shared on Facebook. The post, written by Patheos blogger Ryan Bell, was entitled “Watch Me Unravel“. Here, Bell discusses the ‘unraveling’ experience of one’s whole world view of ultimate concern coming undone and the temptation of nihilism that comes along with it. These grand and over-arching narratives are the myths in which we live by. As author Daniel Quinn makes clear, “A culture,” is nothing more than “a people enacting a story”. These ‘stories’ provide us with the means of describing and defining who and what we are, how it all works, and what it all means. In some cases they are the lies we tell ourselves about ourselves to make ourselves believe. And when these stories, these narratives, these world views come apart at the seams it is the deepest agony of existential angst. It is the feeling Nietzsche described of the Earth being unchained from its sun, moving where we know not, “Backwards, sideward, forward, in all directions…plunging continually,” not knowing up from down, “straying as through an infinite nothing,” set adrift on an infinitely boundless sea of an horizonless ocean without an objective or ultimate guide, without an absolute or supreme compass. To quote Qoholeth, it is “Meaningless! Meaningless! Utterly Meaningless!”.

Bell explains his own process of coming undone. Brought on by the severe “cognitive dissonance” of his irreconcilable and incongruent religious worldview, Bell began the arduously paradigmatic undertaking of unraveling; moving from fundamentalist to liberal Christianity, and beyond, eventually arriving at a kind of humanistic post-theism.

My initial thought after reading Bell’s blog was “This is my story!” My own experience of dissonant unraveling is a mirrored parallel to that outlined by Bell. I grew up, born and raised, completely enmeshed by the pentecostal/charismatic brand of Christian religious fundamentalism, though something always seemed a miss and askew in my relationship with this community but, I knew nothing else. The older I grew, the more I probed, until my questions became bigger than the confines of such a devoutly conservative sect. When I could no longer ethically align myself with the theology and soteriology of this fundamentalist church I made my exodus. I briefly experimented with forming something of a house church. A small group of individuals would meet at my home every other week with the distinct and determined purpose of reexamining, reevaluating, and critically analyzing our faith. It was a constant struggle and it fell apart almost as quickly as it came together. I chalked it up to my own lack of knowledge and so I made the decision to go back to school to study religion. About this time I made my way to a very liberal ‘open and affirming’ UCC church. I was reading voraciously,  New Testament scholarship, Biblical criticism, theology, philosophy,  sociology,  anthropology,  and the list goes on and on. I made a special connection with the UCC pastor and under his recommendation I began studying process theology, himself being a rather committed process person. This was a refreshing perspective at the time and I began to adopt a more panentheistic approach. Still my questioning continued never completely satisfied by any theological position I came across. Finally, it occurred to me that all these divergent theologies were complex and elaborate attempts to make the ‘God’ idea plausibly functional. I began to think that if it took such an extreme amount of effort to make the concept of God work, then perhaps it simply wasn’t an idea worth keeping, perhaps it simply didn’t work. Thus, I began to seriously explore atheism and at last this made sense, this truly resonated with me deeply, it was like coming home.

Obviously, Bell’s story not only struck me but, also stuck with me. I commented to the post with the following response:

“The unraveling I’ve come to embrace and even appreciate, I’ve also come to accept and understand pessimism and nihilism as valid and conducive philosophical positions. However, what continues to be a great difficulty is the lonely and isolated placelessness.”

To which a Facebook friend commented in kind, saying:

” I have been able to “re-knit” the yarn into a humanist/naturalist worldview that, while it doesn’t provide much optimism, there still are small glimpses of hope interspersed. The “sweater” I’m reconstructing is helping me to value each day more, knowing that time is a precious commodity.”

Since then I’ve not only continued to ponder the post but, also the comments above.

I sympathize with these sentiments and yet, I remain skeptical of “re-knitting”. These ‘knitted’ or ‘woven’ “sweater” worldviews, even when reconstructed from the remnants of an un-threaded system, still seem to maintain the scent or lingering specter of what Lacan refers to as the Big Other. Here, two other blog posts I read recently touch and expand upon this point: the first by philosopher Levi Paul Bryant simply titled “Atheism” and the second, “I Believe in Gods” by Kester Brewin.

Bryant explains that for him atheism is not “a thesis about religion,” nor is it “a thesis about the supernatural or the magical or the divine,” but rather “a thesis about masters.” Bryant explains that ‘atheism’ is ” a rejection of all masters, whether they be divinities, kings, fathers, mothers, intellectual figures we fawn over; anything raised over the rest.” “Atheism,” then, Bryant writes “is the recognition that there is no being, divine of otherwise, that is deserving of the place of master or sovereign.” In this regard, Bryant details that what atheism positively affirms is “a commitment to fraternity and sorority and other unheard of ways of relating to humans and nonhumans on a flat plane“.
Thus, Bryant elaborates that “atheism” is not simply “a synonym for that which rejects myth and magic” but, “is a synonym for anarchism, that which is without arche or sovereign…it is a synonym for those that would fight any would-be gods, whether they be divinities or fathers or kings of leaders.” Therefore, Bryant concludes that “Atheism targets not so much an end to divinities…as an end to fathers, kings, mothers, and masters…It wills only an egalitarianism of actors.”
Likewise, Brewin acknowledges that we are surrounded and inundated by the the ecosystem of Big Other systems, saying that “all around us are people who are living in service of and devotion to gods,” that is, what Bryant calls “masters” and the “worldviews” Bell analogously references as being ‘sweater-like’. Here, Brewin, too, proposes an anarchistic, bottom-up criticism from below which resists, rejects, and revolts against “the dehumanising demands of divinity” and “the systems that we have put ourselves in service of,” stating that “the most human thing we can do – and thus, paradoxically, the most godly – is to lay down our devotion to these gods” and to actively seek “the death of all gods.” Perhaps, we should, as Nietzsche suggested, philosophize with a hammer.
This raises several questions for me: isn’t every ‘weaving’ or ‘re-weaving/re-knitting’ of a ‘sweater/worldview’ an act of constructing yet another master, god, or Big Other? And, if so, wouldn’t any ‘sweater’ I could construct or knit deserve to be unraveled?
Perhaps, it is better, or at least more honest, to simply sit Shivah among the strands, falling fallow amidst the frayed, fragmented, and fractured fibers.
Perhaps, we should theologize with scissors.
Perhaps we should devote ourselves to what Thich Nhat Hanh calls “the art of suffering.”
Perhaps, we should learn what Rob Bell has termed “the art of failure”.
Perhaps, we should adopt what is known in Navajo culture as the practice of ch’ihonit’i. The word translates to mean “there is an exit; there is an outlet; there is a way out”. In the Navajo weaving tradition chi’ihonit’i is what Jill Ahlberg Yohe defines as a “purposeful mistake,” in which the weaver purposefully leaves or creates a flaw in the piece, such as an unfinished or frayed corner. It is believed that this creates an outlet or an exit for the spirit that gave rise to its construction to escape; it is not pigeonholed to the piece,not constrained by the construct. As Yohe explains that this practice simultaneously materializes “the positive attributes of human imperfection and humility,” while also creating “a symbolic path for the survival of the weaving tradition to continue into the future.” This culture proposes that perfection is not something to be desired or even sought, as it is ultimately a negation of our humanity.
Perhaps, everything we construct should be purposefully flawed. Perhaps everything we do should intentionally fail and fall short.
Perhaps, every ‘sweater’ knit should be deliberately frayed and prone to unravel.
This is our outlet, our exit, our escape, our means or making sure that whatever Big other, be it god, master, father, mother, ‘sweater’, worldview, that we are unconsciously serving, which may have even inspired our constructs, can be exorcised. And we are allowed to always remain open to the process of a new, continual, and perhaps even an infinite and indefinite unraveling.

Rob Bell After Magic

 

I’ve been reading Kester Brewin‘s latest book entitled After Magic: Moves Beyond Super-Nature, From Batman to Shakespeare. Brewin summarizes the trajectory of the book well, saying that “I am convinced that in our love of power and influence we have ignored the subtle move that many stories take in renouncing magic at their conclusions.” From this vantage Brewin traces this move ‘Beyond Magic’ within some of our most renowned works of literature and film. As the subtitle suggests this is a journey which begins in Shakespearian plays and continues all the way to films such as The Prestige, Christopher Nolan’s Batman Trilogy, and pushes further still. The impetus of the journey, as Brewin makes clear, is to “explore what they have unearthed in our humanity” in order to “uncover a faithful re-reading of Christianity that follows their moves ‘beyond super-nature’ to something far, far greater.” “The hope,” then, as Brewin goes on to say, “is that by immersing ourselves in these stories, and accepting this radical re-reading of the Christian narrative as a model of life ‘after magic,’ our humanity will be restored and our addiction to power and violence broken.”

In this regard, Brewin’s work does much to incite and ignite the imagination. Upon reading his text one begins to see luminous examples of this renouncement of ‘magic’ and ‘super-nature’ well beyond the borders set forth within the book’s pages. One such an example occurred to me recently.
Rob Bell, former teaching pastor of the Michigan mega-church, Mars Hill, has been noted as a profound and prolifically creative speaker and author yet, has always remained as something of an ambiguous and enigmatic figure. His work has, more often than not, hinged upon raising big questions of some of religion’s biggest themes, subjects, positions, and doctrines. Interestingly enough, however, he has done so while alluding the pronouncement of his own position or view. In much of both his writing and speaking he has become a master of evading the offer of a clear and concise answer to many if not all of the very questions in which he raises. As such, Bell has certainly been no stranger to controversy, especially in regards to such works as the now infamous Love Wins, which if many would have actually taken the time to read would have seen that there was very little in the way of controversial content. I am sympathetic to Bell’s method of allowing big and haunting questions to remain lingering without answer. It is not necessarily a bad thing that he has often resisted ‘taking a side’ per se. I do think that in many ways our question are more important than our answers. I have to admit that I count Bell’s book, Velvet Elvis, to be one of those paradigm shifting books for me personally. I read it at a time when I needed ‘questions’ such as those must. It lead further into inquiry, examination, and critique but, ultimately this journey lead also to taking a position, while not  a staunch or necessarily rigid position in all cases, in certain areas I have had to make a decision and take a side. As such, that has often been my critique of Bell and his work. Elusivity does lead to investigation and while Bell’s balancing act is admirable, I know that at some point there will be a fork in the road. One will come to a crossroads and there will come a time when one simply must ‘take a side,’ so to speak.
Though I may, perhaps, be over generalizing but, it seems that for Rob Bell that time has arrived. In recent headlines, ‘Rob Bell Comes Out for Marriage Equality.’ While on a speaking tour promoting his latest book, What We Talk About When We Talk About God, Bell was asked for his position on same-sex marriage. In response Bell said, “”I am for marriage. I am for fidelity. I am for love, whether it’s a man and woman, a woman and a woman, a man and a man. I think the ship has sailed and I think the church needs — I think this is the world we are living in and we need to affirm people wherever they are.”
Now, what I find most interesting about this is not simply that Rob Bell took a side, though that is to be applauded, nor am I intrigued by the position he took, it is one I myself adamantly hold. What is most interesting to me about Bell’s seemingly sudden ‘positional’ clarity is its timing. The former pastor has so rarely been that candid with controversial issues, it begs the question what has changed? Could this be another indication of what Brewin describes as that which comes ‘after magic’?
Brewin writes that “In anthropological terms there is total continuity between magic and religion.” Thus, there is also a continuity between the magician and the priest. Brewin continues stating that,
In the person of the priest we have someone dressed in robes who is, for the purposes of the illusion, suppressing their identity. Under the surface of both the ‘transported man’ and the ‘transubstantiated God’ tricks are extremely violent murders from which the audience remain protected.

Here, “part of the priest or shaman’s role is thus to convince their audience that they need to keep coming back: it is in their interest to bring to the fore the infinite demand that a god’s existence makes.” “The Priest,” Brewin goes on to say, “preaches a message of commitment and regular worship because they need to sustain the demand.” As a result, “Great institutions [like the church/religion] can do brilliant work, but the inescapable problem with our projection onto them of super-natural ability is the large, dehumanising demands that they create.”

It seems that now, less than three years, after Bell’s resignation from Mars Hill, after laying down the ‘magic’ of the pulpit, the ‘priesthood’, and the cloth, moving beyond the disguise and elusivity that the trick demands be maintained, Bell is taking decidedly clear stances that are more deeply affirmative of the actuality of where our humanity is. Perhaps this is precisely what it means to live After Magic.

It’s Not You, It’s Me (‘Unbelief’ is not a failure)

I recently came across an article on Patrol Magazine written by editor Jonathan Fitzgerald entitled “We are the Reason They Don’t Believe.” Fitzgerald is also the author of a book I’ve recently begun reading entitled, Not Your Mother’s Morals. The book explores the ways in which modern popular culture is changing the very ways in which we engage with and understand morality. Fitzgerald terms this new permutation of morality that now seems to be permeating through current films, art, music, and other mediums, the New Sincerity. This is something of a call to authenticity and a rejection of cynicism.
In the article Fitzgerald shares his reactions to the growing numbers of the social demographic now referred to as the Religious Nones, a subject that I myself have also been quite drawn and have written about previously as well (you can find the post here). Fitzgerald expresses his heartbreak over the angst and “unbelief” of the Nones stating:
I sat up in my bed staring at the ceiling and listening to people my age discuss how they stopped believing, how they’re trying to fill their lives with other things to replace religion, and most heartbreakingly, how they still want to believe, I couldn’t help but feel like I failed, like all Christians fail, to provide a space for the these sincere doubters.
Fitzgerald emphasizes his point stating over and again “We’ve failed them.” He also goes on to say that “As a believer, I want to win those ‘Nones’ back.”  Even though I identify as an Atheist and would certainly have to be numbered amongst the Nones I can sympathize with his point and I appreciate his honesty and sincerity. However, I can’t help but feel that he’s leading off from what I find to be inaccurate assumptions.
To begin with, the religiously unaffiliated should not necessarily be synonymous with “unbelievers.” As an unbeleieve myself I realize that I represent a minority within the Nones. Amongst the Religious “Nones” there has not been an overwhelming abandonment of theism. While this demographic has adamantly rejected religious identification, the clear majority have retained their belief in God. The largest group of nones (68 percent) say they believe in God or a universal spirit. Within that group, 30 percent of them are certain God exists and only 27 percent of nones say there is no God. Clearly, most of those that claim no religious affiliation have not ceased to believe.
Nor have the Nones ceased to believe in ethics and morality. They are drawn to activism and rally around the mobilization of social issues. They care deeply about equality, human rights, as well as social and economic justice. In many regards they have actively embodied “religious” ideals more thoroughly than most religionists. Perhaps here, Nietzsche was more right than we realize when he said that “Christian dogma was destroyed by Christian ethics.” Theologian Don Cupitt explains further that “Christian scrupulosity eventually forces people to admit that they can no longer believe Christian dogma.”
What is it the Nones don’t believe? It’s neither God nor ethics that is most adamantly being denied. They don’t believe in institutions, be they religious or non. They reject the concretizations of hierarchy and bureaucracy. But this is to be lauded. They have sought an autonomous authenticity outside the walls of formalized structures.
In Entertainment Theology, Barry Taylor highlights the that “this anti-institutional posture toward religion does not result in a rejection of the sacred[…] What is advanced instead is a new understanding of the relationship of the sacred and the profane, the spirit and the secular. The sacred and profane are blended into new configurations.” The old binary ways in which we have sought to order ‘reality’, society, experience, and the world can no longer suffice.
In a Big Think video technology futurist Daniel Burrus discusses what the occurrence of “linear change”, that is, change that is distinctly one way, unidirectional, as Burrus says, “Unlike cyclical change, when linear change hits we’re not going back.”
Once you got a smartphone, you’re not going back to a dumb phone. Once the people in China parked their bicycle and get a car, they’re not going to say, gee, lets get rid of the car and go back to the bike. Once people in India get refrigeration for their homes, they’re not going to say we don’t need refrigeration. Now these are one way – they’re not cycles – one-way linear changes that had profound…consequences.
While some of the Nones we may still feel a desire to “believe”, the simple fact remains that, because of the rapid exponential changes of technology, communications, globalization, social media, and the free flow and exchange of information and ideas, Nones are seeking to upgrade from the outmoded technology of the church and can no longer “believe” the way we once did.
Yet, if you look deeper I think you will see that they are reinventing belief, redesigning what it means to believe. Perhaps this is post-religious thought, whole news ways in which one can be “religious” are being innovated. In his article, “Critique of Religion and Religion as Critique: The Secularized Hope of Ernst Bloch, Gerard Raulet calls this “Dialectical Secularization.” Raulet writes that “Dialectical secularization does not abolish religion and its themes, but instead, inserts them into a dialectical secular practice where they retain their interpretative potentials.” He goes on to say that “Secularization, according to Bloch, is defined both as a break with and as the continuation of Biblical hope.”
In many regards, then, you could say that the church has not failed the Nones. The church has failed itself. It is has consistently failed to live up to its own designs, systems, and models. It is not because the church or religion has failed that the Nones became so. Rather religion and the church has failed to keep up with those who have become Nones. Religion has failed to make the strides that the Nones have made on their own.
In response to Fitzgerald’s article I must be clear, I did not choose to be religiously unaffiliated because you have failed me. You are not a failure because I am an Atheist and a None. You have failed me because you have seen my atheism and my religious disassociation as a failure.
 Paul Tillich drew upon such a distinction in his idea of the “latent church.”

In its prophetic role it is the Church which reveals demonic structures in society and undercuts their power by revealing them — even within the Church itself.. And in doing so the Church listens to prophetic voices outside itself, in judgment both on culture and on the Church in so far as it is a part of culture. Most such voices come from persons who are not active members of the manifest Church. But perhaps one could call them participants of a latent church[…] Sometimes this latent Church comes into the open. Then the manifest Church should recognize in these voices the spirit of what its own spirit should be and accept them even if they are most hostile to the Church.

This begs question what if the Nones are in fact the best example of the New Sincerity, what if the most authentic progression of religious scruples is religious disavowal?
What if instead of the church seeking to get Nones to join the church, the church sought to join the Nones? What if religion itself became religiously unaffiliated?

Frodo, the Ring, and Religion…

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As I’ve been playing catch up reading some of my favorite blogs, which i am still horribly behind on (my apologies to those bloggers whom I follow), I’ve happened across a few that have been striking. One such post was from what is becoming one of my favorite blogs, Recovering Agnostic. The post was titled “Loss of Faith as Modeled in Lord of the Rings.” In this post there is, what I think is a clever analogy at work. In this writing the author seeks draw a comparison between a few of the various fortresses featured in the Lord of the Rings saga and how the way in which the defenses of each are penetrated is representative of the various methods and mechanisms in which one experiences the loss of faith. Helm’s Deep with its multi-tiered walls is likened to the slow and gradual slide from a conservative faith, to a liberal faith, culminating finally in a faith lost. Similarly, Mount Doom, with only a single heavily fortified line of defense, which when penetrated falls almost immediately, is symbolic of an abrupt and radical shift from firm faith to absolute atheism. It’s an interesting post that I recommend you read.

This whole idea sparked a few thoughts of my own and I could not help but comment upon the post. I though it also might be good to share them with you all here. Below you’ll find my remarks. I hope you’ll enjoy them as well the original post, which I hope you’ll read first.

I too, am well acquainted with the loss of faith. I have found my experience to be quite like what you described as the Helm’s Deep methodology, in which I passed through a immense liberalizing of theology and belief, eventually conceding to a loss of faith altogether and an accepting embrace of atheism.

What sprang to mind in this line of thinking (Models of losing faith illustrated by the Lord of the Rings) is yet another way, although I’m sure there are many more. Early on in your post you suggested that you were uncomfortable with the phraseology of “losing faith” because of its value laden implications, as it insinuates a loss of faith as negative in which would should rigidly refrain from the loss and if lost one should do everything within their power to find it once again. Perhaps then this third way I’m describing should be called the Frodo effect, in which the faith carried, like the ring itself, is a burden, an albatross around one’s neck, becoming too heavy and two shameful to bear. In this case, one is slowly being turned into someone they are not, progressively degrading into a monster yet, all the while becoming more and more consumed by it, believing it is the one all important possession that matters more than anything else. Yet, there will eventually come a point when they absolutely must abandon this faith, it must be cast into the fires of Mount doom and destroyed if they ever hope to survive, to remain sane, or to be well again. In this model is a battle to let it go and when it is gone there remains a hole that will never be fully filled and a wound that will never be fully healed. They know they are better off for having let it go but, the emptiness remains…

Religionless?

Is the sociological purpose of religion self-gratification or selfless actions?

I think this is a profoundly insightful and deeply probing question. It is also astoundingly complex and cannot be answered simply but, it is precisely questions such as these that will provoke the most necessary of investigations.
In many ways you could say that religion by its very nature is aimed at self-gratification. R. L. Johnstone’s working definition of religion is quite conducive to this point, it is as follows:
Religion is a set of beliefs and rituals by which a group of people seeks to understand, explain, and deal with a world of complexity, uncertainty, and mystery, by identifying a sacred canopy of explanation and reassurance under which to live (Johnstone, 2007, p. 14).
Here Johnstone draws out that “Religion thus serves to provide answers to peoples’ questions and concerns over purpose, destiny, and mystery, as well as comfort and support in times of danger, bereavement, and death” (p. 14).  Comfort, answers, support, these are all self-serving endeavors and are also incidentally the primary motivations for seeking out the religious experience in most cases. In a world beyond one’s control, full of turmoil, angst, and uncertainty, people seek security and religion is but one of the most utilized to attain a sense of comfort and consolation.
At its core then, the religious desire could be said to be the desire to self-soothe or self-medicate, a method of relieving one’s self from the wiles of the world. Religion thus, provides a lens through which one may see the world, as well rhetoric and models for relating to and engaging with the culture in which they are a part. Yet, all of this motivated by the desire deal with, cope with, and ultimately avoid despair. Peter Rollins explains that “religion at its most basic defined a particular way of thinking about and relating to God, a way of approaching God as the solution to problems such as fear, ignorance, or despair” (Rollins, 2011, p. xiv). Here the divine becomes little more than a deus ex machina  or something of “a psychological crutch” (p. 7). Jean-Paul Sartre points out that “it is plain dishonesty for Christians to make no distinction between their own despair and [atheist’s] and then call [atheists] despairing” (Sartre, 1996, p. 319).
To act selflessly is to be decidedly self-sacrificial. It is act without any concern for one’s own interests, well being, comfort, and security for the greater good. It is the abandonment of all those things one seeks to attain from endeavoring to be religious. Perhaps then the greatest acts of selflessness are at once acts of religionlessness.
Johnstone, R. L. (2007). Religion in society: A sociology of religion (8th ed.). Upper Saddle, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Sartre, J. P. (1996). Existentialism and human emotions. In L. N. Oaklander (Ed.), Existentialist philosophy: An introduction (2nd ed.) (pp.310-319). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall.

The Erosion of the East?

This is another of the many essays written for an Intro to World Religions class. In this particular assignment we were asked to concisely sketch the differentiation of thought and practice between Eastern religions and those that are more Westernized. Enjoy!

In his book, Liberating the Gospels, author John Shelby Spong writes, “The fact that we must recover is that Christianity was not born as a Western religion. A Western mentality has been imposed on this Middle Eastern understanding or revelation of God” (18). Though Spong is speaking specifically to the Judaic origins of Christianity, it raises several important considerations when examining differentiations between the religious dynamics of the East and West. We often take for granted that the three ‘Western’ monotheistic faiths did not come to fruition or arrive fully formed and they did not develop in a vacuum from the influences chronology and surrounding cultures. As Spong reminds, many of the faith that we have come to consider Western have, in all actuality, been westernized. These religions were not always as we have them now but, they are rather Hellenized reflections of their former selves.
When examining the adamant polytheism of the Hindu tradition it is easy to draw stark distinctions between these pluralistic ideals and the monotheism of Judaism. Indeed, as Karen Armstrong makes clear, “We assume that the three patriarchs of Israel – Abraham, his son Isaac and his grandson Jacob – were monotheists, that they believed in only one God” but , it is far “more accurate to call these Hebrews pagans who shared many of the religious beliefs of their neighbors in Canaan” (14). The ancient Hebrews were monolatrous, at best, prior to the full development of monotheism around the sixth century.

It seems that Western sensibilities are all too willing to unashamedly impose modern concepts, beliefs, and interpretations upon a people, a text, and a time in which such ideas were unheard of, ungraspable, unavailable, and inconceivable. Karen Armstrong explains further, “We have developed, for example, a scientific view of history, which we see as a succession of unique events. In the [Eastern] world, however, the events of history were not seen as singular but as examples of eternal laws, revelations of a timeless, constant reality” (10). Armstrong continues, “Before the modern period, Jews Christians, and Muslims all relished highly allegorical, symbolic, and esoteric interpretations of their sacred texts” (12).

In many of these regards it seems that Christianity has suffered the most from its eroding divorce from its Eastern heritage. “Where Christians have come to indentify orthodoxy with correct belief, Muslims, like Jews, require orthopraxy, a uniformity of religious practice, and see belief as a secondary issue” (37). The “right belief” of Christianity has become the very basis of its soteriology, i.e. doctrinally ascribed beliefs will result in salvific reward of “Heaven” in the afterlife. First and foremost it must be noted that Jesus very rarely speaks of Heaven. Jesus is found speaking more predominantly of the Kingdom of God, though in the Matthean tradition, which is the most Judaic in orientation, renames this verbiage as the Kingdom of Heaven, neither of which should be understood as destinations following death. The “Kingdom,” though implicitly eschatological, was a present reality in-breaking, culminating, and coming to fruition in the here and now. This is far more indicative of  ‘realized eschatology,’ that is the Eschaton as a possession of the present. This is an existential engagement with the world and thus has more in common with Buddhism in this regard.

As such in one of the few instances in which Jesus references the day of Judgment, though he does so only in parabolic form, we see that as one stands in Judgment the questions asked by Jesus are not issues of doctrine, dogma, or even belief. He does not ask for a confession or statement of faith. He does not ask for an affirmation of his divinity or any other such theological conception. Instead, those servants found to be “good and faithful” are those who fed the hungry, gave drink to those who were thirsty, gave hospitality to the stranger, clothed the naked, cared for the sick, and visited the imprisoned. This bears resemblances to the cessation of suffering spoken of by the Buddha.

Here, I’m reminded of a story in the Talmud. Rabbis Hillel and Shammai are approached by a gentile who requests that they recite the entirety pf the Torah while he stands on one foot. Rabbi Shammai is appalled and condemns the gentile questioner. Rabbi Hillel said to him, “That which you hate, do not do to others. That is the entire Torah, the rest is commentary. Go and learn it.” In Hillel’s astute paraphrase of Leviticus 19:18 he suggests that the love of the neighbor alone serves as the foundation of the Torah and all its 613 mitzvos. He suggests that every aspect of the Pentateuch is directly connected to man’s piety in relation to his fellow man and the only ‘god’ that seems to enter the equation is that which is revealed in the face of the other.

The Talmud then teaches that a person should envision the world as being perfectly and intricately situated in a state of balance, having equal parts good and evil(reminiscent of the Taoist view) (Ciner). When a person performs a Mitzvah he tilts the entire world towards good and likewise when he commits evil he shifts the entire world towards evil. In the Jewish faith it’s believed that Kedusha (holiness) and Tum’ah(impurity) are the causes of the good and evil in the world and any good that enters this world does so a s a result of a holy act performed by someone in this world. Buddhism, a non-theistic religion, similarly suggests this idea in its notion of Karma (Ciner). Buddhism sees suffering occurring as a consequence of greed, hatred, and delusion and thus, seeks to end suffering by replacing greed with selflessness, hatred with loveand compassion, and delusion with wisdom and enlightenments. As Thomas Merton once said, “In the end it is the reality of personal relationships that saves everything.”

Armstrong, Karen. A History of God: The 4,000 – Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. New York: Random House, 1993. Print.

Armstrong, Karen. The Battle for God. New York: Random House, 2000. Print.

Ciner, Yisroel. “Acharei Mos-Kedoshim – 5761.” Parsha Insights. Torah.org, n.d. Web. 28 Nov. 2011.

Spong, John Shelby. Liberating the Gospels: Reading the Bible with Jewish Eyes. New York: HarperCollins, 1996. Print.