Look where the finger points… not at the finger

March 30, 2010 at 9:33 pm (myth and metaphor, science, Unitarian)

I read this interesting article on theological diversity within UU. I am gradually beginning to see past the shallow, literal meaning that I’ve always understood religion to have, and this article helped.

The author makes a comparison between religion and scientific modelling similar to the one I made once:

The human response to experience is to make a conceptual model, to construct a model of the universe that gives the relevant human experience a plausible and familiar context. But the experience is primary, not the model. And the experience is already experienced in metaphor and image. We, therefore, talk about all of this already at two levels of remove from the primary experience. This can be useful, if done in full awareness of what we are working with. But finally, it is almost inevitably wrong!

Theology, or religious language, is not only about the description of human experience. Its use and purpose is also to evoke particular human experiences. The first we have called religion. The second – the evocation of religious experience – we have lately been calling spirituality. But in neither case is it appropriate to get hung up debating the truth or falsehood of the conceptual models and metaphors. … Look where the finger points. Not at the finger.

The whole article is interesting but here are some selections that I particularly liked:

Theological language speaks about human experience, there being nothing else humans can speak about. That human experience is mappable in (theoretically) an infinite number of ways. And, as the semanticists are fond of reminding us, the map is not the territory. No single map of human experience can catch all the nuances. All language is an abstraction from experience. Every abstraction leaves something out. Each is in-and-of-itself wrong, at least to the degree of being incomplete. The only complete mapping would be recapitulation.

Theological languages, images and symbols are metaphors, or at least – participate in the limits of metaphors. We humans have a tendency to draw inferences from our metaphors without bothering to check the inference against the experience back of the metaphor. Multiple metaphors tend to lead us into fewer inappropriate inferences.

Among the purposes of a religious community is to keep its members spiritually alive and growing. At least in our tradition, we do not assume that there is some “it” you can get and quit. Due to the limits of human knowing, it is always incomplete. Tomorrow’s experience may prompt change. The community most likely to keep us alive and growing is not one in which we all agree; but rather one that tolerates, affirms, even cherishes the broadest, richest diversity. Not because there is no final truth, but because there may be and our own incompleteness suggests we may not have it yet. Not because it does not matter what you believe, but because it does and the only way to keep belief alive and growing is to be free to actually believe what you do believe. And even someone who is quite wrong may have something to teach me.

This does not mean that religious language is above critique. Only that no particular language is given privileged status merely because it is that particular language. We should, indeed, debate the adequacy of our language. Clear thinking will give us better description, more likely to be heard well and rightly, and better evocation of the intended experience.

Religious surrender is not to a language or belief system, nor it is mere credulity… [It] is to put my attention on that in my life where transcendence – the more-than-me and what pushes me to become more than me – is experienced as breaking in.

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4 Comments

  1. LK said,

    inspiring…and really interesting.

  2. susanne430 said,

    I really liked the paragraph which begins “Among the purposes of a religious community is to keep its members spiritually alive and growing. At least in our tradition, we do not assume that there is some “it” you can get and quit.”

    That’s a really great one! Even in Christianity we aren’t supposed to think “OK, I’m saved. Now I can do what I want to do.” My preacher tells us we have to grow and a person who quits growing, dies. We believe we were saved to do good works so it’s not a “I’m saved so I can relax, eat chocolates and do nothing.” We even believe God wants to change us to get rid of the baggage and replace it with good traits. You may recall references to purifying like gold in the fire. So that which I quoted above reminded me of this.

    I liked this a lot — “And even someone who is quite wrong may have something to teach me.”

    Thanks for sharing this.

  3. sanil said,

    Very cool. 🙂 Thanks for posting.

  4. Achelois said,

    “That human experience is mappable in (theoretically) an infinite number of ways. And, as the semanticists are fond of reminding us, the map is not the territory. No single map of human experience can catch all the nuances. All language is an abstraction from experience”

    Ditto! Loved this bit.

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