Religion as ideal essence or experiential reality?

Devadatta

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One line of division which I’ve noticed coming up again and again is between those who see a particular faith as an ideal essence that only needs to be properly applied, and those who see the same faith as a human activity that must be measured by all of its actual effects.

It all turns on how we read scripture. Let’s take the Koran. Leaving aside the more extreme possible readings, I think most would read this book as having some passages that appear to approve violence and others which would seem to at least mitigate this same violence.

So it’s the perennial matter of interpretation. And the line of division seems pretty clear: essentialists assume an ideal text with a unitary meaning (inerrancy is one expression) that only requires an ideal reading, and which renders contradictions only apparent. The experientialist assumes not an ideal but a multi-sided, non-unitary text, which is therefore not susceptible of an ideal reading, and which affirms that contradictions are real. Further, while essentialists take the text as fully reliable, experientialists treat the text with a dose of suspicion, as no more immune to mixed motives, mere will to power, etc., as any other human text or project.

So an essentialist might say there is an ideal Islam recoverable from the texts, that any falling short of this ideal was a failure of application or foreign contamination. But an experientialist might ask: How is this one ideal located, by whose interpretation? And he or she would point out that from the beginning there have been competing interpretations of Islam, competing ideals, and therefore competing measures of what it means to “fall short”.

But an essentialist might answer: Are you saying that anything anyone does in the name of Islam helps define the faith? So if some nut told you that the Koran commanded that he pee in your corn flakes, would that be in the realm of Islam?

And an experientialist might respond: Well, no. We’re fully free to negotiate the limits of interpretation and commonsense would eliminate the sillier cases. But I maintain that on the core issues, religiously sanctioned violence or suicide bombing, for example, the answers that Islam gives are not as clear and unitary as we would hope, and unfortunately open to abuse.

And here I guess the two sides might offer their contrasting views on how to solve this problem of interpretation. The essentialist might offer some version of divine guidance, that only God can bring us to the correct, “good-guy” interpretation of scripture. The experientialist might first ask: So what’s a “good guy”? But he or she might agree with the concept in general, but suggest we rely not on divine guidance but instead on the spirit of free inquiry as the best method for arriving at this good-guy interpretation.

I guess both sides – excepting those who are in active support of the “bad guys” – can hope that the good guys win in the end.

Shanti, etc.
 
Hi DD,
But an essentialist might answer: Are you saying that anything anyone does in the name of Islam helps define the faith? So if some nut told you that the Koran commanded that he pee in your corn flakes, would that be in the realm of Islam?

And an experientialist might respond: Well, no. We’re fully free to negotiate the limits of interpretation and commonsense would eliminate the sillier cases. But I maintain that on the core issues, religiously sanctioned violence or suicide bombing, for example, the answers that Islam gives are not as clear and unitary as we would hope, and unfortunately open to abuse.
I think this the crux of all my "arguments" here. If I were talking about the occasional oddball that felt compelled to wee in peoples cornflakes I could rightly be dismissed as overreacting. But when 100s of 1000s of people are dying each year in the name of some words written in some old book there should be a reality check. But there is not. What you call the "essentialists" of this world are the more numerous and their constant excuses, for that is what they are, do nothing to curtail the bloodshed. Quite the opposite, they deflect from the real debate of how we deal with these issues in a rational way. In trying to pacify and respect their rights to belief we are hamstrung in dealing with the radical killers. As long they continue to use the same book passive religionists are an ally to the religious extremists in providing the intellectual "flak" to keep everybody distracted. This is my issue.


tao
 
Hi DD,

I think this the crux of all my "arguments" here. If I were talking about the occasional oddball that felt compelled to wee in peoples cornflakes I could rightly be dismissed as overreacting. But when 100s of 1000s of people are dying each year in the name of some words written in some old book there should be a reality check. But there is not. What you call the "essentialists" of this world are the more numerous and their constant excuses, for that is what they are, do nothing to curtail the bloodshed. Quite the opposite, they deflect from the real debate of how we deal with these issues in a rational way. In trying to pacify and respect their rights to belief we are hamstrung in dealing with the radical killers. As long they continue to use the same book passive religionists are an ally to the religious extremists in providing the intellectual "flak" to keep everybody distracted. This is my issue.


tao

For once, at least, I am in total agreement with you Tao. Same could be said of other religious faiths, but the immediate concern deals with the Islamic faith. I wish that tere were more vocal Muslims in this regard. Or they scared or apathetic?
 
One line of division which I’ve noticed coming up again and again is between those who see a particular faith as an ideal essence that only needs to be properly applied, and those who see the same faith as a human activity that must be measured by all of its actual effects.

It all turns on how we read scripture.

It's unclear what various "readings" of scripture would mean in isolation. Individual beliefs are orthogonal to doctrine. Obviously there will be many ambiguities. The most obvious question that comes to mind here has to do with exegesis and rules for interpretation: What is the authoritative reading that experts can agree on and on what grounds?

One other quick comment: If by "actual effects" you mean overt behavior, then the analysis does NOT turn on how we read scripture. Rather, it turns on being able to show a functional relationship between proximate beliefs and the action that presumably follows from the beliefs, which may or may not coincide with essential doctrine.

Good luck with that Devadatta. ;)
 
As long they continue to use the same book passive religionists are an ally to the religious extremists in providing the intellectual "flak" to keep everybody distracted. This is my issue.
tao

This I think is essentially one of the assertions that Sam Harris makes in his book The End of Faith.

s.
 
Hi DD,

I think this the crux of all my "arguments" here. If I were talking about the occasional oddball that felt compelled to wee in peoples cornflakes I could rightly be dismissed as overreacting. But when 100s of 1000s of people are dying each year in the name of some words written in some old book there should be a reality check. But there is not. What you call the "essentialists" of this world are the more numerous and their constant excuses, for that is what they are, do nothing to curtail the bloodshed. Quite the opposite, they deflect from the real debate of how we deal with these issues in a rational way. In trying to pacify and respect their rights to belief we are hamstrung in dealing with the radical killers. As long they continue to use the same book passive religionists are an ally to the religious extremists in providing the intellectual "flak" to keep everybody distracted. This is my issue.


tao

This is a fascinating thread, and I'm mostly in agreement with Tao (both TE and Tao ;)). I think what I question is if we must abandon all the old books, which I find valuable texts that chronicle human spiritual experience, in order to move forward. Is it possible to retain the old books but move past the divisions?

I would put forth that it isn't the texts, per se. The way people interact with the texts is indicative of people's spiritual and mental state in general. That is, people are willing to die for a faith, but it isn't because they have faith. It's because they have an identity and fear.

We could abandon all the books and people would find some other thing, text or otherwise, to disagree about and put their lives on the line for. I see it all as madness. To me, it's like a good chunk of the human species took a bad turn on the evolutionary road, willing to sacrifice themselves and each other for this or that concept... when none of the concepts are real. Or at least, by all rationality and reasonableness, we can't know that our version of whatever concept is any more or less real than another's. So why fight about it?

To me, the common sense approach is to look at actions and ask "Is this harming or healing beings? Is this sustainable or not? Is this supporting life or not?" Forget textual interpretation- just look at people's actions. Obviously, if an interpretation is harming others, unsustainable, or against life... then it is not useful. It is not helping our species, and should be chucked out the window.

I totally recognize that I'm an idealist and totally simplistic, at my core, in my own spiritual path-- but it seems to work, or at least keep me from the fear, rage, and whatnot other people seem to display in abundance. I'm not perfect, but at least my way of going about weeding through belief seems to lead me toward being better each day.

Basically, I would ask of any interpretation, any practice, any action-- does this heal? Does this love? Does this support life? It isn't that hard, and no, complex definitions of healing, love, and life aren't really necessary. I think people just want an excuse from having to own up that we all (OK, most all of us unless one is a sociopath) has an innate capacity to recognize healing, love, and life when we feel/see/sense/hear it. Sure, anyone can rationalize anything and twist the words... but we all kind of know it's twisting and perverting real love and life, yes? Deep down, even they know it, or rationalization would not be necessary. No one feels it necessary to justify soothing a crying child, or saying a kind word, or saying I'm sorry for wrongs done to another... That we justify certain things as "good" indicates that they may not be...
 
It's unclear what various "readings" of scripture would mean in isolation. Individual beliefs are orthogonal to doctrine. Obviously there will be many ambiguities. The most obvious question that comes to mind here has to do with exegesis and rules for interpretation: What is the authoritative reading that experts can agree on and on what grounds?


You’re not that Netti Netti from some previous thread, are you? I’m sure that was only your doppelganger.

Speaking of reading, what I read here is your unpacking of what I meant by “how we read scripture”. Certainly, “reading” for most believers is in the context of authority, and authority includes a priestly class of some kind who, if they take their jobs seriously at all, develop methods of interpretation for reading based on their dogmas, and in the interest of elaborating and policing their doctrines.

But do we really need these ten-dollar words? (Orthogonal, what!) It makes me feel so pretentious – and God knows I’m pretentious enough as it is – when the issue here is far simpler, and was simply stated at the beginning of this thread. Let me try it another way.

I do not deny that there are relatively more and less informed readings. I do not say as Tao does that we should just throw all these old books away. I’m saying again (and again) that in my view a magic text, a magic authority does not exist, and never did, that to assume some inerrant beginning to any human activity, whether text, method or authority is an act of faith not reason. If you have that faith, I respect that, but I don’t.

So in my view what you’ve offered here is merely an assertion against an assertion, which leads nowhere.

So how do we proceed? Well, again, I can offer innumerable historical crimes – inquisitions, heresy hunts, sexual repression, just to switch a moment to the Christian sphere – that have at least some religious connection. But none of these would convince you, because for you these would all be deviations from some ideal text, reading, orthodoxy or authority.

This is the point where most people simply agree that they have opposed perspectives, shake hands, wish one another well and hope that perhaps on some other basis they might have a more fruitful discussion.

One other quick comment: If by "actual effects" you mean overt behavior, then the analysis does NOT turn on how we read scripture. Rather, it turns on being able to show a functional relationship between proximate beliefs and the action that presumably follows from the beliefs, which may or may not coincide with essential doctrine.
Good luck with that Devadatta. ;)



Again, you seem to me to be merely unpacking what you take in an extraordinarily strict and literal sense. No. Human beings are not some ancient Dos program requiring a single command to crash or explode into color. You don’t automatically plug in Christianity at one end and magically get chastity belts at the other. I never made such a claim. I never said the relationships were simple between text, priest, church, dogma, doctrine, the individual believer, social factors, political factors, acts of nature, the price of gas, how much I bet on the Celtics, or, just to bring us back to the question of chastity, the future panty wearing habits of Brittany Spears. Quite the reverse of the charge of simplicity which you seem to be leveling, I’m making the point that religion is implicated among all these and other complex factors, that
There
Is
No
Magic
Essential
Religious
Doctrine
Separate
From
Life.

Now, can we shake hands on this, and move on to greener pastures?

Shanti. (funny face) (crazy face) (mystical face)
 
To me, the common sense approach is to look at actions and ask "Is this harming or healing beings? Is this sustainable or not? Is this supporting life or not?" Forget textual interpretation- just look at people's actions. Obviously, if an interpretation is harming others, unsustainable, or against life... then it is not useful. It is not helping our species, and should be chucked out the window.

I totally recognize that I'm an idealist and totally simplistic, at my core, in my own spiritual path-- but it seems to work, or at least keep me from the fear, rage, and whatnot other people seem to display in abundance. I'm not perfect, but at least my way of going about weeding through belief seems to lead me toward being better each day.

Basically, I would ask of any interpretation, any practice, any action-- does this heal? Does this love? Does this support life? It isn't that hard, and no, complex definitions of healing, love, and life aren't really necessary. I think people just want an excuse from having to own up that we all (OK, most all of us unless one is a sociopath) has an innate capacity to recognize healing, love, and life when we feel/see/sense/hear it. Sure, anyone can rationalize anything and twist the words... but we all kind of know it's twisting and perverting real love and life, yes? Deep down, even they know it, or rationalization would not be necessary. No one feels it necessary to justify soothing a crying child, or saying a kind word, or saying I'm sorry for wrongs done to another... That we justify certain things as "good" indicates that they may not be...

Hi Path. Well, this is totally not simplistic to me. It's the pragmatic test. I don't know how much you agree with me, but I essentially agree with you. In the best of all possible worlds, we shouldn't have throw away any of our history, just because they and we are (and ever will be) imperfect.


It seems to me that people constantly forget that the Abrahamic God in particular is a God of movement through history, that God is a verb, constantly unfolding, that adhereing to some prior formulation merely on principle does more violence to the text than any new interpretation in the service of real human needs ever could.


If any of these old texts truly are definitively thrown on the ash heap of hitory, it won't the fault of the atheists, the pragmatists or any other non-literalist - it will be the fault of the dogmatic believers.


Thanks very much for your positive response.

Cheers.
 
Certainly, "reading" for most believers is in the context of authority, and authority includes a priestly class
What would Martin Luther and the Protestants say about that?

But do we really need these ten-dollar words? (Orthogonal, what!) It makes me feel so pretentious – and God knows I’m pretentious enough as it is –
Heh, I appreciate the opportunity to be pretentious that you have provided by means of your various opinionations. :p

I never made such a claim.
Sorry if there was a misunderstanding. Maybe I just need to get used to your use of language. You tend to be very literary, whereas I'm a bit of a reductionist and try to state testable propositions in a simple form.

Basically what all this discussion about terrorism amounts to is an attempt at psychological profiling. This usually involves data rather than florid literary expression.

There
Is
No
Magic
Essential
Religious
Doctrine
Separate
From
Life.

Now, can we shake hands on this?
If you're saying Essentialism is a logical impossibility, I would shake on that. :)
 
What would Martin Luther and the Protestants say about that?

Expletive deleted, no doubt. But then look how the various protestants re-established their own brands ofauthority. The names change, the methods alter, but the impulse remains.


Sorry if there was a misunderstanding. Maybe I just need to get used to your use of language. You tend to be very literary, whereas I'm a bit of a reductionist and try to state testable propositions in a simple form.

Exactly. That certainly has been an issue. But for me religion in some senses is a branch of literature. As you know, I treat it as systems of metaphor pointing to important truths, when used well and not literally. As for reductive kinds of reasoning, well, I think that tends to be problematic in this area, and often abused.

Basically what all this discussion about terrorism amounts to is an attempt at psychological profiling. This usually involves data rather than florid literary expression.

I think this is indeed a valuable and needed activity. I would only say that profiling can't be reductive but needs to broaden out into a truly pragmatic phenomenological study that really takes in all the factors of human consciousness, including religious ideas - and I'm only using these fancy words because here they strictly apply. (And no you're not the first person to call me florid.)


Shanti.
 
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