Monthly Archives: May 2016

Reinterpretation, Part 1 – Relevancy

Today’s Post

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’.

Where Have We Got To? : A Summary of The Blog So Far – Religion

Today’s Post

Last week’s post summarized the first two segments of the blog, Evolution and Science.  Today’s post will summarize the third segment, Religion.

Religion (September, 2015 to April: 2016, What is Religion?)

We have seen that the general rise of complexity as observed by science requires a ‘principle’, just as do the play of the forces identified by Physics, Chemistry and Biology.  However, extrapolating from this general observation to a God as reflected in the many conflicting religious creeds is quite something else.  The spectrum of ‘belief’ is very broad indeed, and each creed reflects a different perspective on ourselves as well as the reality that we inhabit.

In this third segment, we looked at Religion from a secular perspective, as the human attempt to make sense of our environment and the part that we play in it.   From this perspective religion can be seen to evolve, not in the physical sense of slow changes to our physiology, but through the cultural structures by which acquired knowledge and wisdom are passed from generation to generation.

These posts (Sept 3 – Jan 7, The Evolution of Religion) went on to examine religion as an evolving, living thing, tracing its emergence from ancient myths and rules for society, through the influence of early historical modes of thought, and on through the confluence of the great Greek and Hebrew civilizations to their impact on Western society.

With this historical perspective in mind, we went on to offer a multifaceted definition of religion.

We noted that in general, evolution in the human can be seen in the increasing skill of applying the neocortex brain to the stimuli of the lower limbic (emotions) and reptilian (fear, antagonism) brains. (February 4– What is Religion? Part 2: The Evolution of Understanding)

With this perspective in mind, we explored other areas of human existence in which religion contributes to our understanding,

–          a basis for human action (February 18– What is Religion? Part 3: Enabling Us to Act)

–          contributing to our sense of place in the scheme of things, (March 3– What is Religion?  Part 4: Belonging)

–          understanding of our potential and the basis for it, (March 17 – What is Religion?  Part 5: Transcendence)

–          as both a contributor to the stability of society (March 31 – What is Religion?  Part 6:  Stability, Part 1), and its flip side, as often an inhibitor to this stability (April 14 – What is Religion?  Part 6:  Stability, Part 2).

From these posts, religion can be seen as a plethora of assertions about ourselves and our place in the universe.  Many of these assertions are clearly in contradiction:

The Eastern emphasis on the diminishment of the uniqueness of the human person as it approaches the ‘all’, versus the Western emphasis of the enhancement this uniqueness as it approaches the ‘all’

In the Western (Judeo-Christian) tradition:

The ‘monotheistic’ assertion, in which a single God is the root of all reality, versus the ‘duality’ necessity for a second such ‘root’ to explain the existence of evil

And, closer to home:

The ‘left’ Western understanding of scripture as metaphorical truth, versus the ‘right’ Western understanding of scripture as literal truth

Nonetheless, all these systems of belief have a core which embraces a transcendent aspect of reality, the open-endedness of human person and the need to overcome the restrictions of ego to be able to be able to capitalize on human potential.

On To the Final Segment

In preparation for the final segment, in which we will re-look at many of the basic precepts of Western religion, we will employ the observations, assertions and perspectives that we have gathered in the first three segments.  In summary:

–          The universe unfolds from principles identified by Physics, but advances in the direction of increased complexity

–          Understanding that each new product of evolution contains the potential for this increased complexity is to perceive an ‘axis’ along which evolution proceeds

–          To acknowledge this principle of increasing complexity as an addition to those principles recognized by science is to recognize the existence of a principle by which we come to be as evolutionary products aware of their consciousness

–          All human thought addresses this principle by attempting to

o   articulate this principle: to describe, measure, and in general, understand how it is manifested in our lives

o   understand how our lives can be lived in order to see it more clearly

o   learn how to take full advantage of it: to maximize our potential, and therefore live our lives more fully.

–          Of all human thought, Religion comes closest to addressing this principle most explicitly.  In Teilhard’s words, religion consists of an attempt to ‘articulate the noosphere’.

So given that reality does indeed contain a thread which, if recognized and followed, will lead on to an enhancement of our lives, can the many manifestations of understanding presented by our Western religions indeed be leveraged for such ‘articulation’?  If so, how?

The fourth and final segment of this blog will explore such leverage.  While the bewildering array of dogmas, theological statements, rituals and historical twists and turns found in Western religion are often contradictory and indeed often antagonistic, there are many basic concepts which are potentially compatible and even integrated at their historical base.   As quoted previously, from Karen Armstrong:

“Instead of jettisoning religious doctrines, we should look for their spiritual kernel.  A religious teaching is never simply a statement of objective fact: it is a program for action.”

Further, and this is the goal of the final segment, the perspectives developed in the first three segments of this blog offer a basis of reinterpretation of the traditional teachings of Christianity.  Such reinterpretation offers the prospect of clarifying their relevance to human life.  By seeing the ‘spiritual kernel’ which shines through the often clumsy statements of belief offered by our Christian expressions, it is possible to understand the potential that they offer to our human existence.

Borrowing from Maurice Blondel, the perspectives of the first three segments of the blog offer ‘principles of reinterpretation’ that seek to understand ‘statements about the divine’ (as expressed by traditional Christianity) in terms of ‘statements about the human person’.

The Next Post

In the past two weeks, we have summarized the first three segments of the blog.  Next week we will move on to the fourth and final segment of the blog in which we will address the many statements of Western belief and explore the means of reinterpreting them in the light of the perspectives offered in the first three segments.

In this way, we will explore how religion can be seen to take on the secular task which powers the continuing evolution of the human person and his society.