Monthly Archives: January 2015

What is religion?

What is Religion? The dictionary tells us that religion is a man’s belief in God or gods. Everyone believes in some kind of a god, therefore, everyone has some kind of religion. […] What we wish to avoid is not religion, [so understood,] but dogmatism and superstition.

(Ernest Holmes, The Bible in the Light of Religious Science, p. xii, 1929)

It is illuminating to examine the roots of the word ‘worship’, which is often tied up with a definition of what is ‘religious’. Worship comes from a word meaning something like ‘having worth’, and worship is where one attributes high value to something. One can worship God, a god, ancestors, a football team, and so on – with various gradations of the intensity connoted by the term ‘worship’.

When the First Commandment says to ‘have no other gods before Me’, it basically is saying to not value other things as more important than one’s relationship with God (but rather, ‘seek ye the kingdom of God, and all these things shall be added unto you’ (Luke 12:31) – in other words, God is conceived as the primary good and ‘lever’ by which other goods can be brought about). When someone values, say, the stock market highly, the stock market has become to that extent one of their gods. Whether they like to think of it this way or not, they are worshiping the stock market through their valuations and consequent actions.

Similarly, what is to be avoided, whether it is in one’s conception of economics, politics, some area of the physical sciences, and so on, is not valuing something highly, but rather a dogmatism of belief, such that one refuses to revise and expand one’s conception of the world.

This occurs in almost every social institution, because what is (rightly) criticized as belonging to aspects of religions (dogmatism) actually is a more general social phenomenon.

The Practice of Divine Presence

We are to so completely sense this [Divine Presence – a realization that there is a power which knows, cares and understands -] that the heart will respond and the emotions acquiesce. Without such an emotional agreement, words are empty and ideas void of real meaning.

(Ernest Holmes, The Bible in the Light of Religious Science, p. 27, 1929)

It is important to note that this realization isn’t an intellectual one – rather, it is a (seeming) perception. It is like seeing a sunrise, say – not something imagined, but experienced (although, obviously, one can also imagine a sunrise).

Much of religious debate involves empty words and ideas void of real meaning – without the experiences that go along with them, you are usually parroting words or speaking in abstract phraseology. It only really makes sense with the experiences that go along with them.

Which is to say, in order to communicate various ideas relevant to Christianity, the person you are communicating with really has to have the concordant experiences. Put another way, all the abstract words can’t really change someone’s heart, but an experience can.

This is why in Christianity it is important to figure out how to generate those experiences. In Christianity, the first step is usually having an open heart, the second asking God to enter or be present, and the third to do so in a state of ’emptiness’. It turns out that certain kinds of actions tend to lead to these experiences. Eventually, it seems this sort of process often leads to an experience of the ‘Divine Presence’.

It is only once that happens that much else in Christianity can start to make sense in a ‘real’ way, to use Holmes’ term.

Theological add-ons

The plain fact is that Jesus taught no theology whatever. […] Historical Christianity, unfortunately, has largely concerned itself with theological and doctrinal questions which, strange to say, have no part whatever in the Gospel teaching.

(Sermon on the Mount, Emmet Fox, introduction)

Fox then goes on to list theories concerning original sin, vicarious blood atonement, infinite punishment for finite transgressions, and predestination as examples of these add-ons.

It is probably important for anyone exploring Christianity to distinguish between what is core in Christianity, and what is secondary or derivative. Much of what is criticized, and what causes intellectual problems, is not the core of the Gospel message (say) – in a nutshell, peace, hope, and love –  but rather derivative theological reasoning.

Once you realize that human reasoning is easily misled, it is a short step to demoting much of theology to a tentative status. Something to be held conditionally, as perhaps a ‘best current attempt’ or heuristic. If what is (actually) a speculative line of reasoning is conflicting with one’s common sense, say, the appropriate answer is usually to say ‘So much the worse for the theology!’

Be perfect

Be perfect, as your Father in Heaven is perfect.

(Matthew 5:48)

The Christian long game is essentially to work towards inner perfection, which then goes together with changes in behaviour. Eastern Orthodox traditions tend to get this right, with an emphasis on ‘theosis’, or becoming more like God.

How does one change one’s inner self? One important tool is through actions of thought. Collectively, these are called prayer in Christianity. It is important to note that ‘prayer’ is not a simple kind, but rather embodies different practices, many of which have as their goal the achievement of inner perfection.

This is to say, prayer is often not about changing the world ‘directly’, but changing oneself, which leads to things that change the world.

So, movement towards Inner pefection is typified by an increase in a kind of inner peace, a gradual change in one’s habitual thoughts, and these are then accompanied by changes in behaviour such as Jesus references before the quotation above.

So, certain kinds of prayer are different practices by which one can gradually refashion one’s habitual thoughts (and, therefore, actions or effects in the world).

As a rough categorization, these involve kinds of listening, meditation, visualization, contemplation, recitation that approximates what is known as ‘mantras’, and so on. This is complex, with some practices probably not achieving a significant result amongst some or most practitioners, while others have significant results.

So, within Christianity there are many practices. The question for an individual Christian is, which ones are the most relevant and effective for me at this point?

Science and atheism

Robert Barron writes

I have found that, in practically every instance, the scientists who declare their disbelief in God have no idea what serious religious people mean by the word “God.” Almost without exception, they think of God as some supreme worldly nature, an item within the universe for which they have found no “evidence,” a gap within the ordinary nexus of causal relations, etc. I would deny such a reality as vigorously as they do. If that’s what they mean by “God,” then I’m as much an atheist as they—and so was Thomas Aquinas. What reflective religious people mean when they speak of God is not something within the universe, but rather the condition for the possibility of the universe as such, the non-contingent ground of contingency. And about that reality, the sciences, strictly speaking, have nothing to say one way or another, for the consideration of such a state of affairs is beyond the limits of the scientific method.

I understand why people like Barron might like this maneuver – it is philosophical jujutsu of the highest order. In a single conceptual stroke, they overturn what seems like a powerful argument – that (supposedly) there is little evidence for God within the universe.

Yet, I don’t think Barron can actually mean what he says here. Does he think there is no evidence for the action of the Holy Spirit? No experiences of grace that make a difference to how people act? Similarly, does prayer have no effects – and if so, why does he ask people to pray for him and his ministry?

If these things have effects, they are on overlapping terrain with science, which is simply the study of cause-and-effect relationships pertaining to the paradigmatically physical world. Since what affects human actions affects that world, scientists will have a large lacuna in their understanding of the world if, indeed, there are effects such as described above.

Having said this, Barron gets a more general claim correct. Most scientists are poorly informed about Christianity or even theism – they tend not to be acquainted with the large variation of beliefs that go along with it (including Barron’s own Thomistic position), or the kinds of considerations or evidence for some of those variations. Similarly, his characterization of academic philosophy and theism is interesting, and worth reading.