Monthly Archives: August 2017

August 31 – If There is a Secular Side of God, What About Religion?

Today’s Post

Over the last year we have explored the idea of God from a secular viewpoint.  We have taken a look at the traditional Western concepts of God: the definitions, metaphysics, dogmas and scriptural references and explored them for their secular aspects.  In a nutshell, we have seen that all of these concepts of traditional religion contain core threads of belief that can be understood from a secular context.

We have also seen how ‘reinterpreting’ these concepts in the light of a secular perspective can also serve to achieve a more integrated understanding of God; one which is cleansed of the corrosive duality so endemic to traditional Western religion.  In addition we have also seen how this approach can serve to mitigate the irrelevance that has crept into Christianity since its beginnings.  Richard Rohr puts the need for such a reduction of irrelevance (and a call to reinterpretation) in plain terms:

“For centuries, Christianity has been presented as a system of beliefs. That system of beliefs has supported a wide range of unintended consequences, from colonialism to environmental destruction, subordination of women to stigmatization of LGBT people, anti-Semitism to Islamophobia, clergy pedophilia to white privilege. What would it mean for Christians to rediscover their faith not as a problematic system of beliefs, but as a just and generous way of life, rooted in contemplation and expressed in compassion, that makes amends for its mistakes and is dedicated to beloved community for all? Could Christians migrate from defining their faith as a system of beliefs to expressing it as a loving way of life?”  (Italics mine)

How Did We Get Here?

So, our approach to reinterpretation of Christian teaching in order to restore it to a “system of beliefs… expressed as loving way of life” is the goal of this blog.  The first step of such an effort has been to offer a reinterpretation of the traditional Western concepts of God in the light of a secular point of view.

Such a point of view, as we have seen, is not based on the intuitive traditional approach of scripture, the evolved Greek-influenced dogmas or the metaphysics of Aquinas, but is rooted in the empirical findings of Science.  This point of view emanates from an integrated understanding of such scientific theories as can be found in the Standard Model of Physics and the Natural Selection theory of biological evolution.  I stress the term integrated because, as Teilhard notes, it permits the universe to be perceived as a single, unified thing which is unfolding in the direction of increasing complexity.  Once this underlying metric is acknowledged, the rest is a matter of understanding the many modes of complexity which the universe undergoes before it reaches, as Richard Dawkins notes, “..its present complex existence”.

God, as Dawkins acknowledges, can then be seen as “the basis for this process”.

So all we have done in this blog is to explore the consequences of these two prepositions.  Seeing God in the process and understanding how we can continue this continuing of complexity as it rises through our persons and our species.

As part of this exploration we will see how we can plumb the many teachings of religion for their significance to this process.  Or, as Dawkins sees it, how we can begin to “divest the word ‘God’ of all the baggage that it carries in the minds of most religious believers” in order to get back to the profound intimacy as found in John.  As we have seen, John believes it is possible to be intimate with Dawkins’ “basis for this process” when he declares that “God is love and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him”.

So, given all this, how do we find this ‘thread of evolution’ arising in us, and more importantly, how do we cooperate with it to become more fully human?

Or, putting it more prosaically, how do we advance human evolution through development of the skill to use our neo-cortex brains to modulate the instinctual stimuli of our limbic and reptilian brains?

Articulating the Noosphere

Answering these questions involves what Teilhard refers to as “Articulation of the Noosphere”.  To Teilhard, there are spheres of our planet, such as the ‘lithosphere’ (the rocky core), the atmosphere, the hydrosphere (the oceans), and the biosphere (living things).  To this he adds the additional sphere which occurs as a result of the human ability to be aware of its awareness: the noosphere (human thought).  Just as the other spheres are addressed by Science, and yield understandings which permit humans to deal with them, in the same way the noosphere must be parsed and understood if we are to continue the process of evolution as it rises through the human person.

As Aldous Huxley claims in his ‘Perennial Philosophy’, all religions attempt to understand reality in terms that help us deal with it: they all propose ‘articulations of the noosphere’.  All religious teachings, to some extent, propose beliefs about reality and establish practices (rituals) consistent with the beliefs that are intended to bring us closer to becoming what we can become.  But as we have seen, most religions, due to their integrative ability to bring cohesion to cultures and nations, eventually wander into dualism, hierarchy and irrelevance.

This is not to suggest that their articulations are without merit.  On the contrary, this blog takes as a ‘given’ that they contain nuggets of value to us as we collectively continue to develop the ‘skill of using our neo-cortex brains to modulate the instinctual stimuli of our lower brains’.  In other words, to advance human evolution

Where Do We Go From Here

So, given this goal, and considering the secular understanding of God that we have developed, what’s the next step?  As a final segment of the blog I would like to address many of the concepts and beliefs of Western religion and offer reinterpretations consistent with our secular approach.  I also hope to show how the principles which emerge from such reinterpretations can be seen as relevant to human existence as we have addressed it:

–          Since we are products of evolution, we contain at our core a spark, a small branch, of the universal axis of evolution by which the world is raised to Dawkins’ “present complex existence”

–          We continue the process of evolution (towards both personal and cultural maturity) by recognizing and cooperating with this spark

–          We must develop a collective understanding, an ‘articulation’ of both the structure of the universe and our place in it as well as an understanding of how to engage it in such recognition and cooperation

This last segment of the blog will address traditional Western religious concepts such as spirituality, grace, sacrament, faith, salvation, the afterlife,  prayer, and scripture in terms of how they can be reinterpreted as such articulation.

The Next Post

This week we reviewed how we got to this secular perspective of God, and opened the subject of how the reinterpreted principles of Western religion can be seen as tools which we can use to effect not only our own personal growth but to contribute to the continuation of human evolution as a whole.

Next week we will begin to address these principles, starting with the concept of ‘spirituality’.

August 17 – The Secular Side of The Trinity

Today’s Post

Last week we summarized the last facet of the complex God that emerged in just a few hundred years after the death of Jesus, the ‘Trinity’.  We also noted how this concept emerged at the same time that the new church began to become part of Roman society and how the church began to drift into an institution which became more dependent on adherence to dogma.  As its dogma became more articulated, truth became more ‘an object of faith’ required to assure salvation and than an insight for living.  It didn’t help that the new church was now becoming an essential part of the Roman structure which required a new level of adherence to dogma to insure a unified society.

Yet, as we saw from Karen Armstrong’s observation, the teaching of ‘Trinity’ was “simply baffling”, and from Richard Rohr that this teaching seems ‘furthest from human life’.

With all this, what secular sense can we make of it?

The Secular Side of the Trinity

From our secular viewpoint the perspective of the Trinity is much simpler.  From our secular perspective, we have seen how God can be reinterpreted from a supernatural being which is the ‘over and against of man’ who creates, rewards and punishes, to the ‘ground of being’, the basis for the universe’s potential for evolution via increase in complexity.  And applying this perspective to Jesus, we saw how he can be reinterpreted from a sacrifice necessary to satisfy such a distant God, to the personification of this increase in complexity as it rises through the human person: the ‘signpost to God’.  In the same way we can see a third manifestation of this ‘axis of evolution’, the ‘Spirit’, in the energy which unites the products of evolution in such a way as to effect this increase in complexity.

More specifically, we can begin to see how this ‘triune God’ can be seen to be ‘person’.   The synthesized collaboration of these three principles of evolution effects what we know as the product of evolution that we refer to as ‘the person’.  Christianity puts names to these three aspects of the ground of being:

–          ‘Father’ as the underlying principle of the becoming of the universe in general, but as the principle of this manifestation as it emerges after long periods of time as the ‘person’

–          ‘Son’ as the manifestation of the product of evolution that has become ‘person’

–          ‘Spirit’ as the energy by which this ‘becoming’ takes the form of increasing complexity which leads to the ‘person’

As we have noted frequently in this blog, Teilhard describes this third ‘person’, this third manifestation of the ground of being, as love:

“Love is the only energy capable of uniting entities in such a way that they become more distinct.”

   And in addressing this last agent of becoming, we can now see more clearly how John’s astounding statement begins to make secular sense:

“God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God and God in him”

  Thus, Teilhard locates the ’Spirit’ squarely in the axis of evolution, as the manifestation of the energy which powers evolution through its rising levels of complexity.  We can see in Science’s “Standard Model’ how the energies manifest in forces such as the atomic forces, electricity and magnetism, gravity and chemistry all collaborate in raising the universe from the level of pure energy to that of matter sufficiently complex to provide the building blocks of life.  We can also see how this energy continues to manifest itself in raising the complexity of living matter through the process of Natural Selection.  Understanding the ‘Spirit’ is simply to understand how evolutionary products aware of their consciousness (human persons) can cooperate with this energy to be united in such a way as to advance their individual complexity (their maturity) and therefore continue to advance the complexity of their species.

Last week we noted that Richard Rohr decried how the increasing structure and dogmatism of the Christian church increased the distance between man and God by decreasing the relevance of its message.  With our secular perspective, we can see how it is possible to understand the trinity in terms which are relevant to life.  Rohr offers these terms, expressed in religious language, as an integrated understanding of the trinity:

“I believe that faith might be precisely that ability to trust the Big River of God’s providential love, which is to trust the visible embodiment (the Son), the flow (the Holy Spirit), and the source itself (the Father). This is a divine process that we don’t have to change, coerce, or improve. We just need to allow it and enjoy it.  Faith does not need to push the river precisely because it is able to trust that there is a river.”

The Next Post

This week we saw that how adding the ‘Spirit’ to the ‘Father’ and the ‘Son’ completes an understanding of the ‘the ground of being’, the basis of the universe’s ‘coming to be’ in general.  More importantly, we saw how we can begin to understand how this agent of evolution which has ‘brought the world to its current level of complexity’ works in our individual lives, as our personal dimension of the ‘axis of evolution’.

Next week we will address the concept of spirituality, and how it can be seen in the light of our secular inquiry.

August 3 – The Trinity

Today’s Post

Last week we took a final look at Jesus from our secular perspective, and noted how quickly the highly integrated understanding of John became a victim of the endless human trend toward dualism.  From our secular perspective, we saw how John’s vision strengthened the immediacy (immanence) of God in human life and how Jesus was the ‘signpost’ for this spark of universal becoming which could be found in all the products of evolution, but only capable of being recognized as such by the human person.

This week we’ll take a look at the third stage of the unique evolution of the concept of God: the Trinity.

The History of the Trinity

As Bart Ehrman notes in his book, “How Jesus Became God”, unlike God and Jesus, the trinity isn’t addressed as such in any of the books of the Old or New Testament.  The idea of God as supreme supernatural creator somehow intertwined in human life is a common thread of the Jewish scriptures (the ‘Old Testament’).   As we have seen, the understanding of Jesus evolves over time in the New Testament, but the concept of a third ‘person’ wasn’t developed until late in the first three hundred years of the new Christian church.

The idea of something (or someone) involved in the coming to be of the universe, and in how this process is reflected in human life, shows up even in the Old Testament.  It is strongly suggested by Jesus, for example, in his statement to the apostles that a spirit (an ‘advocate’) would be sent after he was gone.

It wasn’t until the early days of the early church’s theological development until this agent began to be considered God in somehow the same way that Jesus was being considered.

In a nutshell, the new church began to consider God as being ‘triune’, somehow composed of three separate but unified ‘persons’ whose agency in reality was reflected in three separate ways.  The most commonly used terms ‘Father’, ‘Son’ and ‘Spirit’ are of little use in achieving an integrated understanding of this complex concept.  Thus in the same way that the church required belief without understanding (as we saw in the final determination that Jesus was both God and Man), as an ‘act of faith’ necessary for salvation, it was soon to follow with the statement that God was also ‘three divine persons in one divine nature’.

And, in the same way that the controversy over the nature of Jesus was debated up until the Nicene council, that of the trinity continued to be debated.  As the Arian controversy was dissipating following the Nicean council, the debate moved from the deity of Jesus to the equality of the Spirit with the Father and Son.  A key facet of this controversy lay in the lack of scriptural clarification of ‘the Spirit’ as a person of God in the same way as was ‘the Son’.  On one hand, some believers declared that the Spirit was an inferior person to the Father and Son. On the other hand, the Cappadocian Fathers argued that the Holy Spirit was a person fully equal to the Father and Son.

This controversy was brought to a head at the Council of Constantinople (381) which affirmed that the Spirit was of the same substance and nature of God, but like Jesus, a separate person. Gregory of Nazianzus, who presided over this council offered this explanation:

“No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Three than I am carried back into the One. When I think of any of the Three, I think of him as the whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking escapes me”.

  As Karen Armstrong concludes in her book, “A History of God”, “For many Western Christians . . . the Trinity is simply baffling”.

Richard Rohr agrees with Armstrong that of all the Christian statements of belief, that of the Trinity seems furthest from human life.  The church didn’t make it easier by declaring such statements to be ‘objects of faith’ which must be believed without understanding even though such belief was a prerequisite for salvation.  But as we saw last week, faith is much more than adherence to precepts, it is an essential aspect of human existence.

So, what secular sense can we make of this?

The Next Post

This week we saw how the new Christian church evolved its concept of God from the Jewish ‘Father” to a complex triune but difficult to grasp concept.

Next week we will consider this concept of a ‘triune’ God from the perspective of our search for ‘The Secular Side of God’.