The Essence of Expertise in Religious Matters

I promised my virtual friend James that this weekend’s blog would be in response to his inquiries about what I consider to be the core issue of expertise in religion in general. More specifically he tells me, “We had a…  conversation about this in the past. At the time you said that some religious authorities might be experts in something different from philosophers — not necessarily metaphysics or ethics.” To be honest about it, I don’t remember the details of that specific conversation, but I don’t question his word that we had such a discussion at some point.

So where should I start with this? How can I present this in a way that is accessible and somewhat interesting to folks other than James and myself, without repeating too much of what I’ve already blogged about this summer?

I suppose I should begin with a few comments about the limits of language in such matters. I was recently reminded of the Frank Zappa quote, “Writing about music is like dancing about architecture.” There are many different expressions of human creativity and the human experience which have a very imprecise correlation with each other. Put in another way, there are many different sorts of “truth” that we humans can try to express to each other. The western tradition has been justifiably faulted by those of the African, Orthodox Christian, Indian and Oriental traditions for being too preoccupied with what might be called a forensic aspect of truth: what can “be proven in court beyond reasonable doubt” –– or in the words of a blogger of the Orthodox tradition that came up on my feed this week, we are preoccupied with a “flat” or “literalistic” interpretation of truth. This is where we get off on reducing religion to a collection of positions on metaphysics and/or ethics that largely miss the point of what religion is there for. We become so busy with our dance that we fail to see the architecture for what it is.

But here I’m trying to communicate to James and others something of what this other level or dimension of religious reality is all about without just retreating to empty clichés about its “otherness”. Given the limits stated above, the best way I know how to do that is in terms of exploring the concepts of connection and integrity. The point of religion is both to enable us to deepen our sense of connection with essences and realities from beyond our own physical and phenomenal limitations, and to “hold ourselves together” and discover what the meaning and purpose of our individual identities are. In many senses these two purposes can be at odds with each other, and the struggle to balance them with each other creates an on-going dynamic and learning process which (I believe) needs to be the center of the religious life in general, and the Christian experience in particular. Now let’s see if I can unpack that a bit for you.

The great dilemma of philosophy of religion is that the building blocks of epistemology –– the investigation into the question of how we can really know anything –– are based largely on processes of alienation. There is a great truth to the aphorism, “Whoever discovered water was not a fish.” In order to recognize the existence of water as such we need to be aware of something other than water. For a fish to make the discovery that water exists it needs to have the experience of being taken out of that water. Thus much of the process of investigating the basic realities of what makes life what it is for us inevitably involve fish-out-of-water experiences for anyone who really wants to know about such matters.

Beyond that, the process of learning always involves an element of comparison, and comparison involves holding things in separation from each other –– frequently putting them in opposition to each other. Any time, as a teacher, I divide a class into small groups for a review game, I create false borders between those who will end up as the “winners” and the “losers” for that particular exercise. In the pursuit of a greater depth of knowledge this is considered to be a justifiable risk  –– or acceptable collateral damage –– but it also clearly illustrates how our pursuit of knowledge can lead to a reduced sense of harmony and connection with others and with the world around us.

Thus it becomes necessary to have certain professionals within our societies whose job it is to somehow bring the people together again, and to re-establish harmony between neighbors and between mankind and our environments. Those who performs such tasks are very commonly referred to as priests or priestesses; sometimes figuratively, sometimes literally.

Yet if in this process of re-establishing harmony the “priest” causes people to doubt or to lose track of what it is that makes each of them unique and valuable –– making everyone think of themselves and each other as indistinct parts of a nebulous mass of being “one with everything” –– he may be doing more harm than good. Like the organs within the human body, recognizing that they are interconnected and mutually dependent does not make any given organ less vital to the whole. Each organ has to have its own integrity for the whole to be able to function. So in addition to bringing people together and building a sense of commonality, another vital part of the religious leader’s job is to help people discover their own distinct value within the whole and to develop a basic set of principles to live by that enable them to “hold themselves together” as individuals on a day-to-day basis.

These processes of discovering and developing an integral personal essence for myself as a person and discovering and developing the forms of connection I have with the people and the world around me are profoundly challenging on-going processes. These are the essence of religious or “spiritual” life. A number of different traditions have developed over the millennia of human experience to guide us in these processes. Some have worked better than others. Arguably the most successful has been the Abrahamic monotheistic tradition, and not just for reasons of historical coincidence. This is not to say that this tradition has reached a state of perfection in any one particular form as many of its various fundamentalists might claim, but that it has provided a variety of very useful means of enabling people to conceptualize their relationships with each other and a greater reality which have led to some particularly successful civilizations, by whatever measure you care to use.

But to look at religion as a means of building materially successful and securely self-perpetuating societies is, from the perspective I am talking about, to put the cart before the horse. This is where the most fundamental difference between what we might call a scientific paradigm and a spiritual paradigm comes in. The scientific perspective could be said to focus on the dynamics of physical forces colliding with each other and struggling against each other to make our world what it is. Gravity, centrifugal force, inertia of various sorts, magnetism and a variety of chemical bonds interact in sometimes more, sometimes less harmonious ways, randomly producing reality as we know it, pretty much by coincidence. To the extent that any of this has any meaning it is a matter of the conflicts between these forces, and their random abstract manifestations in our macro-level experiences, result in victory for some forces and defeat for others. By trying to influence which forces are able to succeed in given situations, and by trying to arrange to be on the “winning side” in as many conflicts as possible, those of a scientific perspective set out to give their life meaning through the dynamics of conflict.

The spiritual paradigm, on the other hand, looks at things from the perspective of love rather than conflict being the most important thing in life. Rather than defining ourselves in terms of what and whom we can overpower, we can define ourselves in terms of what and whom we can connect with most deeply. My meaning is not determined by the extent to which I can prove myself to be one of the fittest for survival, but by having the privilege of interacting with what is most beautiful and magnificent in life, and contributing to this beauty and magnificence for others to experience.

There is no denying the interconnection between these two paradigms. Not only, as stated above, does a sense of connection provide a competitive advantage for some, seen by those who prioritize the scientific perspective as well, but a battle against “the forces of evil” frequently sets the conditions under which spiritual interactions take place. There is very much a yin-yang relationship between the factors of conflict and harmony here: they continuously spin around chasing each other, and at the very center of each is the other. This, however, does not keep them from having very different implications and sets of priorities. Another good virtual friend of mine, Pastor Brian Zahnd, expressed it particularly well in one of his Facebook statuses this week:

“Deep down don’t we at least suspect we are really made for shared relationship and not competitive acquisition?

But we’re thrown into a modern world where identity and purpose are almost entirely based in a ruthless contest for status and stuff. […]

Attempting to yoke God to that kind of agenda is what the Bible calls idolatry. God harnessed as means. The holy reduced to utility. It’s what Abraham left Ur to get away from. It’s what the Spirit call us away from.”

This is not a matter of reducing the religious experience to just “stories, rituals and social needs” as James suggested at one point in our discussions this week. It is a matter of a matter of exchanging our cultural yin for a much deeper yang as the basis for our lives. It is not a matter of more precisely defining the forces in conflict with each other (metaphysics) or finding socially acceptable competitive strategies for ourselves (ethics), but of turning the whole paradigm upside-down.

Let me illustrate what this means to me by telling something of my day-to-day experiences this week and how I define myself in relation to them. On Monday my younger son, Kristian, began his compulsory Finnish military service. While he’s doing his first few weeks of basic training he agreed to loan me his car. This whole phenomenon of our father/son relationship, the significance of compulsory military service within this society, and the symbolic role of the vehicle in question within our social dynamics are all complex issues unto themselves. Let me paint through them with broad brushstrokes by saying that I chose to relate to each of them in terms of the love expressed rather than the competitive factors involved.

Which one looks sort of like me?

Which one looks sort of like me?

At times I have my doubts about how thoroughly my sons realize how important they are to me and how much I love them, in spite of all of the barriers that have come between us over the years. Sometimes I get the feeling that they are “playing me” to get what they can out of me for their own competitive advantages in life, but other than staying honest with each other about such matters there’s no point in dwelling on such negativity.

With regard to the compulsory military service, Kris is not in any way significantly tempted to try to get out of it. While on the one hand it is a matter of being ready to kill those who would try to seize control of his homeland, its more direct meaning for Kris is one of taking part in a form of competitive bonding with his older brother and his peers in terms of proving what he is capable of physically and socially within that context. In many real ways it is far more love than hate which comes out in his motivation for being there.

The car is actually an expression of social identity for Kris as much as it is a practical means of transportation. I haven’t always approved of his motivations to try to gain social acceptance through having the right sort of vehicle, but then again he hasn’t always approved of the particularly ugly but practical vehicles I have driven over the years. (Ten years ago when I was driving him to soccer practices he used to ask me to let him out around the corner from the field so his teammates wouldn’t tease him about my car, literally!) In any case, it is was a significant exercise in trust between us when I loaned him most of the money to buy his current “sporty and cute but practical” set of wheels, and it is a return gesture of love and trust for him to loan me his “baby” for this time when he is otherwise occupied.

My primary interest in having the car was to have the opportunity to visit with one of my dearest friends in the world: my old spaniel, Mac. When I left for my year in South Africa I gave Mac up to a new family which lives down the Finnish coast a ways from the capital region. In many ways this was painful for me, but in all respects it has turned out to be a perfect fit for Mac. He has now lived with his new family for a full 2 years, and while there is still a bond between my furry friend and I, he clearly loves his new home and the whole family clearly loves him. Getting to visit with him this week, for the fourth time since my return from Africa, was a much anticipated treat. I would almost call it a spiritual experience in itself.

July w 021In one sense a dog can be considered as basic “property” but that’s not really how it works. I fully identify with the prayer, “God, help me to be half as good a man as my dog thinks I am.” It’s not a matter of having a status symbol I can be proud of, but a matter of having a personal connection with a loyal friend that helped keep my sane for many years. Following up on that connection with personal visits continues to have its own therapeutic value for me, but that’s not all there is to it. There really isn’t any other adequate expression for it than “sharing the love”.

I’ve tried to make it perfectly clear to Mac’s new family that I’m deeply grateful to them for the way that they’ve enabled him to thrive in his new home, and I would not consider trying to take him back for my own selfish therapeutic needs. Borrowing him for the afternoon once in a while, when it fits together with their agenda, is something I deeply appreciate though. In fact I consider my life to be that much richer for this family’s friendship based on our mutual appreciation of our four-legged friend.

July w 039Anyway, as I was leaving on that trip, since the radio antenna is broken off on my son’s car, I got out a old collection of CDs from his trunk that I forgot I had loaned to him, and I chose Stevie Wonders “Conversation Peace”. This wasn’t a big hit album for him, since it admittedly ranges from rather preachy to rather sappy in places, but along the trip I was still struck by the extent to which Stevie “gets it” spiritually:  Love, in many different senses of the word actually, is our best chance of overcoming the greed and corruption which plagues our societies. This ranges from appreciating the sensuous whispers of an intimate partner to feeling a new lease on life based on fresh human contacts, to taking a stand against the senseless violence caused by the ridiculously competitive and unregulated handgun market in the United States, to having a capacity for repentance when we cause pain for others, to very overt songs of prayer and worship. If you want to understand what the basic message of Christianity means to me personally you could do much worse than giving this album a listen.

The challenge of balancing these factors of connection and self-respecting integrity is no easy matter. The sheer difficulty of the challenge involved has led many who have found functional systems along these lines to jump to the conclusion that their particular tradition represents the only right way of thinking about such things. It would also be fair to say, however, that many of the followers of the scientific paradigm have fallen prey to the same fundamentalist impulse at times. A philosophical perspective, which theoretically doesn’t take sides in this matter, sees both forms of belief in the absolute finality of their own truths as equally problematic. This is why, as Bertrand Russell noted, philosophy is subject to attack from both scientists and theologians much of the time. Yet both scientists and theologians –– both those focused on discovering the dynamics of material conflict and those interested in developing a capacity for transcendent love –– inevitably and reluctantly go through processes of learning from their own mistakes. To characterize either paradigm according to the behavior of its fundamentalists is equally objectionable. To say that those of either paradigm are more or less capable of admitting their mistakes and learning from them is blatantly prejudiced and untrue.

But of course I have my own biases here. As a proponent of what I have labelled as the spiritual paradigm, in spite of the argumentative tendencies that I continue to recognize within myself, I prefer increased connection to perpetual conflict –– I am honestly more interested in building friendships than winning arguments as my primary goal in life. I recognize, however, that there are those for whom having the experience of intellectual power is more important than searching for meaning in life beyond our competitive urges. And yes, I do realize that some of the nastiest competitors in such manners use religious dogmas as their primary weapons in the fight. Thus, even if this were a perfect statement of my position (which I am quite sure it is not) the debate could never end here. Thus the best I can hope for is that those on the other sides are willing to compromise to the extent of introducing a bit of mutual respect into the ideological struggle. If that level of compromise with a spirit of harmony is too much for them… so be it.



Filed under Ethics, Love, Materialism, Philosophy, Religion, Skepticism, Tolerance

3 responses to “The Essence of Expertise in Religious Matters

  1. Deborah Alame-Jones

    Thank you for that, David. It was a really excellent teaching on the value of connection rather than competition, of identity and uniqueness yet as part of the whole, the difference between the scientific and the spiritual paradigms. I especially liked your bit about the limits of language. The fact you brought your lovely spaniel Mac in to illustrate and embellish your point made it a delightful read.

    Debbie Alamé-Jones
    Sent from my iPad

  2. Deborah Alame-Jones

    I meant an especially delightful read! Best Wishes, Debbie Subject: Re: [New post] The Essence of Expertise in Religious Matters From: Date: Sat, 13 Jul 2013 20:33:31 +0100 To:

    Thank you for that, David. It was a really excellent teaching on the value of connection rather than competition, of identity and uniqueness yet as part of the whole, the difference between the scientific and the spiritual paradigms. I especially liked your bit about the limits of language. The fact you brought your lovely spaniel Mac in to illustrate and embellish your point made it a delightful read. Debbie Alam-JonesSent from my iPad

  3. Pingback: Scientific Insight vs. Blinding with Science | Huisjen's Philosophy Blog

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