Saturday, January 06, 2007

Sorting Out My Thoughts

Later this month I would like to take the students from a class I teach (Critique of Secular Culture) to McNally Robinson, a local bookseller, where the University of Manitoba' Humanities' Department leads a monthly discussion of ideas. According to the flier sent out by the bookseller, the January discussion is on Richard Dawkins' book, The God Delusion. (A check on the web is discouraging, giving the topic of "Food": interesting, but not as good for class discussion.)

So I do need to read the book, and I need to take such critics seriously. Before doing so (I can't get to the library before Monday), I've been re-sorting through my own thoughts on the idea that God does, or does not, exist. At one level the question is an impertinence, given my own beliefs. For me to put God in the dock (to use a title from C.S. Lewis' essays) is like the character in a book trying to investigate and judge his author, or like the figure in a painting setting herself up as critic of the artist's work: we simply are not qualified for the task.

But recognizing the hubris inherent in the task, I offer a starting thought: We are all creatures of faith. The human condition is such that the effort to learn, to know anything, requires that we assume something else. We are finite creatures probing an infinite universe (so far as our minds can visualize it). How could we possibly learn anything if we did not stand on some ground to assert it, test it, and learn it?

This idea is a commonplace: think of Kuhn's paradigms. I am following Lesslie Newbigin's observation when I say that every one who makes an assertion assumes some prior framework (or paradigm, or ground), but this is elementary stuff.

Now the point this suggests to me is this: Every one assumes some framework of ideas within which they observe Reality. (I follow Charles Kraft in capitalizing Reality when I mean that which exists in and of itself beyond any one person's perception. To refer to our perception of reality, the realities that we all have inside our head, I use the lower case r: reality.) This framework, or paradigm, is what I mean by the term "religion". In this sense the supernatural religions of the world (especially Christianity, Islam, and Judaism and some forms of Hinduism) provide a framework within which their adherents make sense of Reality. In this sense Buddhism and other forms of Hinduism, essentially philosophical and non-supernaturalistic, also provide their adherents with the means to understand reality. And in this sense Secularism, and some forms of Science, function as a religion, providing their adherents with a way to make sense of experience.

Another way of referring to the idea of paradigm is to refer to a story which we use to organize Reality. Christians tell a story of the way the world came to be, and of how we are to understand the world in which we live. Science, seen as a religion, tells its own story, excluding God a priori. What we have to do then, is compare stories (or paradigms) and see which we find most satisfactory. The canons for such comparison are ill-defined; but we serve no one well if we call thoe with whom we disagree idiots for disagreeing with us. Even the Taleban had cogent reasons for their own worldview. I believe that they are wrong in their paradigm, but I do not believe that they are simply silly.

What I want as a starting point, then, is a setting in which we can exchange and critique stories. We need neither seek to convert, nor seek to stifle, but express our own deepest understanding of Reality and search together for something better than the sword that so quickly cuts off another's expression of his/her search.

A last thought: in a comment to my last post Donna referred to the litany of wars fought on religious grounds. One can quickly compile a counter-list of wars fought on economic grounds, or for national pride, or for ethnic survival, or against those who believe in God. The list itself proves nothing. But it does help show why many people have turned against religion (even though they may act with the same violence they claim to find so horrifying). And it does rebuke adherents of different religions for their own faithlessness.

As a Christian, aware of the teachings of Jesus to love and seek peace and of the example of Jesus accepting death rather than leading a revolt against Roman power, I feel betrayed by those who go to war in the name of God. But of course I am tied to the structures within which war and violence is perpetrated. This drives me not to atheism, but to repentance and action, seeking peace in the cannon's mouth.

Jesus said that love and unity among Christians is the best evidence for God's existence and for the truth that Jesus and the Father are One. We have argued the case better than we have lived it. We can rebut the arguments of our detractors, but that counts for little if we do not also create a new litany of peace and love with our own lives.


KGMom said...

Recognizing that the topic of your post is your field of expertise and not mine, I have questions about what one does when adhering to one faith--e.g. Christianity--bumps into the reality of another approach to thinking--e.g. evolution. Since you are calling science a religion, although I suspect you limit how that definition applies, you almost seem to set up for conflict between two (or more) faith approaches. I have no problem accepting the truths discovered in scientific thought, such as evolution, and still retaining a faith, Christianity.
Is this ANYWHERE near what you are exploring, or is just my own little rabbit trail?

Climenheise said...

One can practice science within Science as one's religion. Any scientist who is also a Christian or Muslim does his/her work within a theistic framework. The problem comes when one goes beyond the bounds of the academic discipline and uses it as a paradigm to exclude other paradigms.

Just as a Christian might read the Bible so as to extrapolate "scientific" truth, often doing bad science in consequence, so a scientist may treat his/her discipline as providing ultimate answers to the nature of Reality.

When Lyotard wrote against the use of metanarratives, he referred specifically to this imperialistic use of metanarrative. The problem is not that one holds a paradigm (or story, or metanarrative) which seeks to explain the whole of Reality; the problem comes when one holds that paradigm or metanarrative imperialistically: refusing to allow anyone else to participate in the conversation. (I do not have this reading of Lyotard directly, since I have not read him, but from an essay by Merold Westphal in Christianity and the Postmodern Turn.)

That is what I think Dawkins is doing. I may be quite wrong. He at least invites comment. Although I doubt the sincerity of the invitation, I (and other believers in God) must start with the assumption that he is sincere. The tone of comments on the blog from the Guardian (to which I referred in my post) leads me to believe that there are many who wish to end the conversation by silencing Christians. That is the same problem as one faces with Christian fundamentalists who migth silence the opposition by (for example) having a faculty member dismissed from a church college because she/he does not meet a rigid formula for orthodoxy.