Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Religionists = Trekkies!

The waggish claim made in this essay, along with some interesting observations about belief, secularism, and truth.

Hmm, well, if my only choices were "fundamentalism" or a secularized, atheist version of religion, I think I'd go for the latter every time. But, of course, I don't exactly see those as the only two choices (though they're probably the two most noticeable and vocal). How I would put it, is that believers, and Trekkers, and secular Jews, and these Shakespeare scholars he describes - all strive for and long for something transcendent, and that transcendent thing is true. It's not a metaphor. But our only ways to talk about it (God, The One, The Good, Allah, Brahman, etc.) are metaphorical. So in that sense none of them will ever be completely, literally true, but they also don't need to be dismissed as mere subjective, personal whims or tastes.

I see myself as struggling with my coreligionists on a similar trajectory: can a believer look at other faiths (no, not Trekkers, but Buddhists and Hindus and others) and say, "That's another story, like mine, and it's equally beautiful and enlightening and brings its adherents closer to a God(s)"? I had a several month long email debate with a fundie, which I finally (and embarrassingly) ended with saying I was just sick of his abhorrent beliefs, and I couldn't understand how anyone would believe such crazy bullshit in the 21st century. Anyway, in all those scores of emails, I couldn't budge him to go anywhere near that proposition, and yet, to me, the proposition is self-evident. Indeed, the opposite of that proposition, "What I believe is true. What those people over there believe is false, and probably inspired by demonic forces out to seduce and mislead humanity to everlasting punishment," is precisely what kept me from joining Christianity for a long time - I just couldn't believe such a crazy, dismissive, smug, self-confident, narrow-minded point of view, and I never will, and I will never have much sympathy or interest in people who do hold such a view.


Blogger Jeffery Nicholas said...

Well said. I have many students, unfortunately, who think and speak the way your fundy friend did. I had one who said all Native Americans were going to hell because they were pagan. He didn't know that I'm part Native American, I guess.

11:44 AM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Though original sin is supposedly inherited, I don't think there's any doctrine that eternal damnation can be passed on, so maybe you're okay!

One does get spoiled with the easy assumption of religious pluralism here in NYC, and forgets those vast swaths of unenlightened folk.

11:58 AM  
Blogger Nick Cato said...

Well, as a Christian, you have to ask yourself if Jesus was indeed divine (John 1:1) or just a lunatic when he said that He was the ONLY way (John 14:6). Jesus didn't give validity to any other religion or Ism, and often exposed them.

12:01 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Yes, Nick, I know the passages in John. I don't find them particularly helpful in my thinking about Jesus, or God, or other people's faiths.

12:04 PM  
Blogger Matt Cardin said...

TO KIM: Very interesting. I enjoyed reading your thoughts, and also those of the essay that prompted them.

What strikes me about the lady's position is the way she blithely frames the idea of "metaphor" within a secular materialist-vs.-religious supernaturalist context. In other words, it sounds like she's operating from a modern-day literalist perspective that rigidly divides between "real" and "unreal," "true" and "not true," when it comes to matters of supernaturalism, materialism, spirit, and matter. Therefore, when she uses the word "metaphor" she can't help but think of it as something merely literary, as it were), as opposed to the higher view of it, which you touch on in your post, where metaphor is seen as the only possible way of articulating truths that categorically and essentially elude language because they are higher/deeper than rational consciousness and the phenomenal world. When she says "metaphor" she means "a pretty story that's abstracted from facts that are actually mundane," and this plays directly into her imputing a fundamental dishonesty to liberal religionists who, she thinks, are actually closet supernaturalists of the "It has to be either true or untrue!" type -- that is, exactly like her.

I hope at least some of that manages to make sense. Neat post. Thanks.

TO NICK: You are imputing to the historical Jesus of Nazareth a modern category distinction that may not have characterized his thinking in the precise way that you have framed it. In fact, you are implicitly imputing to him a whole host of philosophical/theological ideas, and, more pertinently, an entire worldview and cast of thought that are fundamentally post-Enlightenment and therefore outside his frame of reference. You're also basing your claim on a document that is a) laden, yes, with an undeniably rich trove of spiritual meanings, and b) not a straightforward historical record or factual account but an overtly interpretive presentation of the life, deeds, words, and overall meaning of Jesus of Nazareth. As such, it is intrinsically unamenable to proof-texting, which is an activity that by its very nature reads meanings into instead of out of such a text.

I hasten to add that I'm not picking a fight. If we were speaking aloud together instead of via digital blips on backlit screens, you'd hear a friendly tone in my voice. I'm just talking about the idea(s) and claim(s) in question.

1:34 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

Kim: Good comments. I don't think the author was suggesting that the two extremes are the only possibilities. But I do think she has a point that many people who cheerfully acknowledge "It's all a metaphor" when you challenge the parts of the Bible they don't like, nevertheless get as defensive as any Fundie when you challenge the bits they do like. In other words, they talk the talk but they don’t walk the walk. Question the God-hates-fags-&-shellfish bits and you’re fine, but suggest that maybe the virgin birth might not be literally true and God help you!

In other words, it sounds like she's operating from a modern-day literalist perspective that rigidly divides between "real" and "unreal," "true" and "not true," when it comes to matters of supernaturalism, materialism, spirit, and matter.

Matt, you make a good point that something can be a metaphor while being more than “just a story.” But the author isn’t talking about supernaturalism or spirit; she’s talking about the physical world. And in the physical world, real and unreal are perfectly valid concepts. Either the Earth is 6000 years young, or it is not. Either Mary was a virgin when she gave birth to Christ, or she was not. Obviously not all such questions have simple, binary yes-no answers, and there are many where we cannot know the answer for sure. But it is perfectly valid to ask “Do you believe this event actually, literally happened or not? And if not, does that change the meaning of the metaphor for you?”

Speculate about the supernatural world all you want. But when religion makes specific claims about the nature of the physical world, then I don’t see it as unfair to question the validity of those claims.

2:47 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Scott: Does anyone really say "The Bible is a metaphor" and then say "The world is 6000 years old"? The latter seems to me a very fundie claim, only made by people who could never claim the former statement. I mean, I read another blog that said some people claim, "I'm a vegetarian; I almost never eat red meat." Well, that's just using the words wrong.

Now, if you're asking - can one claim much of the Bible is metaphoric or non-literal, and then still hold on to some miracles (I'd say the resurrection and virgin birth are probably the top two) then I'd say sure, why not? Though I'd have nothing against both those miracles being metaphors as well, and I'd also have nothing intrinsically against the idea that the Buddha or a Muslim saint performed similar feats.

2:57 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

In other words (sorry, one more try) - the blogger claims that religionists (Christians seem the main target) are intolerant of other people's beliefs, and touchy and defensive about their own. She points to secular Jews as a better model - accepting of others, not touchy about their own beliefs, but essentially evacuating their beliefs of any religious, transcendent content or claims, and making it a matter of homey, comforting traditions. Nothing wrong with those, but I'm still not convinced one can't or shouldn't say "I think this signifies something ultimately true" if one still wishes to.

3:09 PM  
Blogger Scott said...

OK, the Young Earth bit was a poor choice of illustration. But I have seen people play the metaphor card on one page, and then turn doggedly literal two verses later. I suppose it's the distinction between saying "much of it is metaphorical" vs. "it's all a metaphor" but not really meaning it. I think that's the point the author was trying to make, tho I agree she missed the distinction that "metaphorical" doesn't automatically have to equal "completely fictitious."

And I don't think she was claiming one was "better" than another per se - just that as an atheist she wouldn't have a problem with one of them.

8:19 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Ok, then some people are being like the "I'm a vegetarian who eats meat once/week" person I read about elsewhere. They're being careless to the point of saying things they don't really mean, or aren't willing to follow through on, which is very frustrating.

And yes, I shouldn't have uncritically said "better" as though it were some moral judgment. I was lapsing into my usual way of thinking of "What's better for our (unavoidably) pluralistic society?" In that context, as I started out, I'd say secularists who retain some fond feelings for lamb shank or Christmas trees are "better" for the pluralistic society than fundies who try to impose their views on others.

And, while we're on the topic of our pluralistic society, let me refer you to my newest blog entry above! And Happy Thanksgiving!

9:57 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

And sorry (the blog owner always has to get the last word, doesn't he?) - but in my (limited) dealings with atheists, I'd like to try to approach them with some agreement on what we find good, true and beautiful. Do you find meaning and enjoyment in something? A zombie movie? A Mahler symphony? A perfectly executed DDT at Wrestlemania? The best pad thai in NYC? Me too! Let's go enjoy that thing together, whatever it is! And if I think to myself that God is the source of that wonderful thing, I'm not hurting anyone, and I even promise not to say it out loud, so long as my atheist friend doesn't make a point of saying how stupid it is to believe in God. That's all I really ask in my dealing with others.

10:20 PM  
Blogger Bryon Morrigan said...

Dr. K-Paff,

I wonder if you have been keeping up with the work of Egyptologist Jan Assman. ("Moses the Egyptian: The Memory of Egypt in Western Monotheism," "The Price of Monotheism")

He proposes that the idea of religious exclusivism was created by the adoption of the "Mosaic Distinction," which was the first example of exclusivist thinking, and therefore the birth of religious intolerance. (For the non-scholars here, "exclusivism" is the doctrine that one's religion is the only "true" religion and that other religions are "false.")

Primary religions, usually referred to as "Pagan," but here including things like Hinduism, Native American traditional religion, and others, do not have exclusivist doctrine, and accept other belief systems as equally "true." (Case in point: The Romans, Greeks, Egyptians, Germanic tribes, and Celts all looked at each others' religions as different ways of worshiping the same Gods, or other Gods that they had not yet adopted into their pantheons.)

Interestingly enough, I was recently surprised to learn that Christians are abandoning exclusivist doctrine in large numbers these days. And for the record, I came up with a doctrine that pretty much sums up my beliefs on the matter:

"The only false religion, is the belief that there are false religions."

Your Classical Pagan Friend,

Bryon "The Anti-Hank" Morrigan

2:41 PM  
Blogger KPaffenroth said...

Bryon - Good to see you here at the online Casa di Kimmy.

As I'm sure you know, there are lots of versions of when ancient Judaism went "wrong" (assuming one thinks it went "wrong" at some point, and which point one thinks is "wrong"). I had not heard this particular phrasing of it. When people try to reach back to the point at which Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share a common ancestor and a common faith commitment, it's usually phrased as "Abrahamic" religion. So perhaps this Egyptologist is correct that Moses is the point where exclusivity is claimed by the Israelites.

That being said, the sinaitic covenant seems mostly to be a statement of the Israelites relationship to their God, with very little to say about other peoples relations to Him/Her, and certainly no ontological statements about the being or existence of other Gods (i.e. it's usually labelled "henotheism" by scholars).

And that being said, a later book like Jonah seems deliberately and self-consciously to poke fun at the idea of exclusivity, so it seems to be an evolving concept in ancient Judaism, as it is now in contemporary Christianity. And I'm glad you've now met some of us non-exclusivistic Christians! Get the word out, brother!

3:03 PM  

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