Monthly Archives: July 2016

Reinterpreting God- Part 1, A Starting Place

Today’s Post

Last week we concluded the identification of eighteen ‘principles of reinterpretation’ that we will use to address the traditional teachings of Western religion.  Since all religions in some way address and attempt a definition of the underlying ‘ground of being’, that of God, we will begin here.

Where to Start?

The concept of God as found in the many often contradicting expressions of Western religion can be very confusing.  Given the duality which occurs in both the Old and New Testament (such as punishment-forgiveness), layered with the many further dualities introduced by Greek influences in the early Christian church (such as body-soul) (”The Evolution of Religion, Parts 1-10,  Sept 3, 2015 to Jan 7, 2016), and topped by many contemporary messages that distort the original texts (such as the “Prosperity Gospel”) this is not surprising.  Finding a thread which meets our principles of interpretation without violating the basic findings of science but staying consistent with the basic Western teachings can be difficult.

A perhaps surprising starting place might come from the writings of one of the more well-known atheists, Richard Dawkins.   Professor Dawkins strongly dislikes organized religion, but in his book, “The God Delusion”, he casually remarks

“There must have been a first cause of everything, and we might as well give it the name God.  Yes, I said, but it must have been simple and therefore whatever else we call it, God is not an appropriate name (unless we very explicitly divest it of all the baggage that the word ‘God’ carries in the minds of most religious believers). The first cause that we seek must have been the simple basis for a ‘self-bootstrapping crane’ which eventually raised the world as we know it into its present complex existence.”

Here we find an excellent outline of the nature of the ‘fundamental principle of existence’:

–           It must be the first cause of everything

–          It must work within natural processes

–          It must be an active agent (“a ‘self-bootstrapping crane’ ”) in all phases of evolution from the Big Bang to the appearance of humans

–          It must be an agent for increasing complexity (“the raising of the world as we know it into its present complex existence”)

–          It must be divested of “all the baggage” (such as magic and superstition) of many traditional religions)

–          Once so divested, “God” is an appropriate name for this first cause

Dawkins goes on to claim that such a God cannot possibly be reconciled with traditional religion.  Paradoxically, he fails to grasp how acknowledging the existence of a “first cause” which raises everything to its current state is indeed at the core of all religion and offers an excellent place to begin this reconciliation.  Our process for this ‘reconciliation’ is of course that of ‘reinterpretation’.

For an example of such reinterpretation, in our preliminary outline above we find a reflection of Pope John Paul II’s statement on science’s relation to religion:

“Science can purify religion from error and superstition.”

So here in this starting place we can begin to see a view of God that is antithetical to neither science nor religion, but one in which John Paul II echoes Teilhard when he sees it as one in which:

“Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish.”

But What About the Baggage?

Both John Paul II and Richard Dawkins recognize that Christianity has developed a complex set of statements about God.  How is it possible to put these statements into a context which is consistent with the simple outline offered above: to ‘divest them of their baggage’?  This is the objective of this last section of the blog.

The way to go about it?  We will use those ‘principles of reinterpretation’ which we identified in the last two posts to ‘divest the baggage’ in which the traditional statements about God are frequently wrapped.

A Preliminary Definition of God

To start this process, I offer a simple working definition of God:

“God is the sum total of all the forces by which the universe unfolds in such a way that all the entities that emerge in its evolution (from quarks to the human person) each have the potential to become more complex when unified with other entities.”

The question could be asked, “But isn’t this just Deism?’  We addressed this question in the posts, “But Isn’t This Just Deism?”-  6-20 August, 2015”, and noted the differences between our definition and that of Deism.  In summary, the Deists, most notably represented by Thomas Jefferson, conceived of a ‘ground of being’ which was responsible for everything which could be seen at that time.  In their minds, in order to strip “the baggage” from the religious expressions of their time, God had to be understood as a designer and builder of the world, but once having built it, retired from the project.  Theirs was a static world and in no need of continued divine involvement.  As they saw it, Man, given his intelligence by God, was capable of operating the world independently from its creator.

The Deists were off to a good start, but without the grasp of the cosmos and its underlying process of evolution that we have today, they were unable to conceive of a continuing agent of an evolution which continually manifests itself in increasing complexity.  Their static world postulated either an uninvolved God or (as they saw traditional religion’s belief) a God continually tinkering with his creation.

The Next Post

Next week we will begin to examine conventional conceptions of God, starting with that of ‘person’.

Reinterpretation, Part 3 – Reinterpretation Principles, Part 2

Today’s Post

Last week we took a relook at the insights of Teilhard de Chardin, extracting seven principles which we will employ as we move on to reinterpreting religious teaching for their relevance to human life.  This week we will look at principles from other sources.

The Reinterpretation Principles from Maurice Blondel

As we discussed in the post of May 26, In his book, Man Becoming, Gregory Baum describes the work of Maurice Blondel in reinterpreting the traditional teachings of Christianity.  In summary, Blondel saw the Catholic Church’s approach to theology as becoming less and less relevant to human life.  Blondel was one of the first Catholic theologians to call for ‘reinterpreting’ church teachings, and in doing so proposed several ‘Priniciples of Reinterpretation’.  Some of these are:

–          Since we cannot know ‘God as He is apart from man’, we must understand that each statement that we make about God carries with it an implied assumption about humans and the reality in which they live.  By seeking that implied assumption, we can reinterpret a teaching in terms of our lives.

The Principle:  “‘Every sentence about God can be translated into a declaration about human life”

–          As Teilhard was later to expand upon, the energies of evolution which have effected ‘Man’s Becoming’ continue to be active in his continued personal evolution.  The onset of complexity that began in the ‘Big Bang’ continues to be present in human life and manifests itself in our potential for increased understanding and becoming.  Most religious teachings seek to put us in touch with this current of energy by which we grow.

The Principle:  “There is no standpoint from which a human person can say, “I am here and God is there”.  The presence of God is an essential agent in his saying of it”.

The Principle:  “(Religious teaching) is not a message added to our life from without; it is rather the clarification and specification of the transcendent mystery of humanization that is fundamentally operative in our life.”

–          Any teaching must be relevant to be able to have an effect on our lives.

The Principle:  “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”

The Principle: “Man cannot accept an idea as true unless it corresponds in some way to a question present in his mind”

–          Our response to reality is a factor in our personal growth

The Principle: “A person is not a determined being, defined as it were by its nature.  A person comes to be, in part at least, through his own responses to reality.”

Reinterpretation Principles From Karen Armstrong

–          In keeping with Blondel’s insistence on elements of value in religious teaching, Karen Armstrong also offers a principle for reinterpretation

The Principle:  “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.”

–          Echoing both Teilhard and Blondel, she addresses attempts to make sense of God on human terms, which can introduce anthromorphism into the concept of God.  She agrees with the Eastern approach to understanding God differently.

 The Principle:  It was unhelpful to be dogmatic about a transcendence that was essentially undefinable”

Reinterpretation Principle From Jonathan Sacks

–          All religions contain dualisms that undermine their ability to map the road to human growth.

The Principle:  “Any teaching that departs from the underlying unity of the universe will be detrimental to successful application to human life”

Reinterpretation Principle from Richard Rohr

–          Good religion always acts as a unifying principle in our lives

The Principle:  “Whatever reconnects (re-religio) our parts to the Whole is an experience of God, whether we call it that or not.”

An Overarching Principle

–          And finally, a principle which is echoed by each of these thinkers:

The Principle:  ”The underlying truth of a teaching, and the key to its relevancy, can be found in its power to bring opposing points of view into a cohesive whole”

The Next Post

This week we completed our collection of ‘principles of interpretation’, eighteen principles that we will use in the final section of this blog as we examine the precepts, concepts and teachings of Western religion for their relevancy to human life.  It should be noted that in keeping with the subject of this blog, “The Secular Side of God”, these principles are not derived from traditional religious thought.  They are general principles, secular in nature, which can be applied to religious thought.

Next week we will begin our inquiry by addressing the basic cornerstone of all religions, the fundamental ground of being which underlays the universe: God.