Last week we concluded the third segment of the blog with a summary of the first three segments. We also identified the observations, assertions and perspectives that we have gathered to form a basis for the fourth segment: Reinterpretation. In this fourth and final segment we will address many of the statements of Western belief and explore the opportunities for reinterpretation that these new perspectives offer.
This week we will begin this segment with a look at the idea of ‘reinterpretation’ itself.
Why Do We Need Reinterpretation?
In his book, Man Becoming, Gregory Baum describes the work of Maurice Blondel in reinterpreting the traditional teachings of Christianity. He summarizes a basic problem with Christian doctrine:
“A message that comes to man wholly from the outside, without an inner relationship to his life, must appear to him as irrelevant, unworthy of attention and unassimilable by the mind.”
In Blondel’s view, the key to relevance was reinterpretation. In order to increase relevance, to increase our inner grasp of reality and understand the most fruitful engagement with it, we must constantly reinterpret it.
Baum notes that Blondel saw an impediment to the relevance of Christian theology in the tendency to focus on ‘God as he is in himself’ vs ‘God as he is to us’. Jonathan Sacks echoes this tendency, noting that the main message of Jesus focuses on the latter, while the increasing influence of Plato and Aristotle in the ongoing development of Christian theology shows a focus on the former. Both writers point out that this historical trend in Christianity is reflected in a theology of what and who God is apart from man. This results, as Sacks notes, in a new set of dichotomies which were not present in Judaism, such as body vs soul, this life vs the next and corruption vs perfection (Nov 26, The Evolution of Religion, Part 7 : The Rise of Christianity: The Issue of Concepts). Such dichotomy, they both note, compromises the relevance of the message.
An example of this dichotomy can be seen in the Question and Answer flow of the Catholic Baltimore Catechism:
“Why did God make me?
God made me to know, love and serve Him in this life so that I can be happy with Him in the next.”
Note that this simple QA reflects several aspects of such dichotomy.
First that ‘this life’ is simply a preparation for ‘the next’. This life is something we have to endure to prove our worthiness for a fully meaningful and happy existence in the next. Our goal here is simply to make sure that we live a life worthy of the reward of heavenly existence when we die. Like the line from a child’s book, “First comes the work, and then the fun”.
Second, as follows from the first, the finding of meaning and the experience of happiness can’t be expected in human life.
o Ultimate meaning is understood as ‘a mystery to be lived and not a problem to be solved’. All things will not be made clear until the next life.
o Happiness is a condition incompatible with the evil and corruption that we find not only all around us, but that we find within ourselves
o Life is essentially a ‘cleansing exercise’, in which our sin is expunged and which, if done right, makes us worthy of everlasting life.
As both Blondel and Sacks noted, the increasing Greek content of this understanding in Christian history slowly moves God into the role that Blondel called the “over/against” of man. It is not surprising that one of the evolutionary branches of Western belief, Deism, would result in the understanding of God as a powerful being who winds up the universe, as in a clock, setting it into motion but no longer interacting with it.
Dichotomy and Reinterpretation
So, where does this leave us? The majority of western believers seem to be comfortable living with these dichotomies (not to mention the contradictions) present in their belief systems in order to accept the secular benefits of religion as outlined in the last segment:
– a basis for human action
– a contributor to our sense of place in the scheme of things
– a pointer to our human potential
– a contributor to the stability of society
While these benefits might be real, many surveys of western societies, especially in Europe, show a correlation between increasing education and decreasing belief. Is it possible that (as the atheists claim) the price for the evolution of human society is a decrease in belief? That the increasing irrelevancy of religion is a necessary byproduct of our maturity?
Or is it possible that the ills of western society require some connection to the spiritual realm claimed by religion? Put another way: is it possible to re-look at these claims to uncover their evolutionary values? How can the claims of religion be re-understood (‘re-religio’) in terms of their secular values: to look at them, as Karen Armstrong asserts, as “plans for Action” necessary to advance human evolution? Certainly, in doing so, belief has the potential to recover the relevancy that is necessary for finding meaning.
In order to move toward such re-understanding, we will look at the idea of ‘reinterpretation’ itself, to explore how we can best apply the perspectives of Teilhard, Blondel, Armstrong and Sacks to the process of re-understanding our two thousand years of religious doctrine development.
The Next Post
Our lives are built on perspectives and beliefs that are so basic as to be nearly instinctual: how is it that we can come to see them differently? Our histories, however, contain many stories of such transformations, and the unfolding of our sciences and civilizations are dependent upon them.
Next week we will take a look at some different approaches to how our perspective of the basic things in our lives can change, how we can ‘reinterpret’.