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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How detailed is the truth?

November 26, 2009 at 7:26 pm (God, Unitarian)

There are many different religious beliefs, and practices, and communities, and “paths”. Yet I think everyone would agree there can only be one truth. Contradictory things cannot be true simultaneously.

The only way we differ is in how sharply we define that truth.

You could believe there are many paths to God and all are of equal value. Then you would have to take the contents of each religion with a big pinch of salt, because most religions claim only they are the right path. You would have to take a fairly detached, philosophical perspective on it all.

Or you could believe the details matter and therefore there is only one right path. You would have to be convinced on that religion being right on all points where it differs with other religions.

I am a bit schizophrenic about this. On one hand, I can’t bring myself to say only one belief system is right and the rest are doomed. But on the other, I am engrossed in picking over the details of religions to see whether they make sense and if they could be inspired by God. With the implication being that I don’t want to join a religion unless I think it is “of God”.

I suppose the split is caused by believing that we can all come to know the truth naturally (we are born muslim, we have fitrah, or in Christian terms, the law is written on our hearts) – but at the same time, believing that God sends explicit guidance. And of course I’d rather belong to a religion that consists of well-preserved guidance from God than one based on mere human intuition.

I met a woman at a Sufi workshop who had tried a number of different spiritual practices before she “found” Sufism. It just agreed with her personality, the dancing and everything, and she felt she had found her spiritual home. At the time I was gobsmacked that someone would make a decision like that based on a feeling. But now I realise that it is really a matter of confidence – confidence in oneself not to need any particular detailed guidance, and so not needing to seriously investigate religious beliefs. I’m putting words in her mouth, but I’d say she probably believes that there is no important information in any religion beyond those things that are common to all spiritual paths. So no need to worry.

I kind of wish I could be sure of that too. It would save me a lot of headaches.

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