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Why Bother?


BillM
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Okay, before I say anything else, let me first say that I am not asking this question in mockery or distain, just in honesty. And I am, to a large degree, asking it in my own life and journey. I'm not sure what my own answer is yet, so I thought I would ask you good folks here. With that preamble said, here goes:

 

One of the popular and traditional notions within religion is that God (or the Divine or the More or the Sacred) is beyond ken, that God is so transcendent as to be ineffable. In other words, our words and experiences of what we call God always fall short of accurate description and transmission. I, too, have had experiences of God that are extremely difficult to put into words, that can usually only be described with limited metaphors and analogies. So I agree that all "God-talk" is, by definition, limited to and very subjective of human experience.

 

But if this is truly the case, if all of our "God-talk" is mere meaningless babble, then why do we talk about it at all? Why bother?

 

It seems to be a popular trend on this board that we constantly remind ourselves and our posters that our views are limited, and there is, I believe, certain justification for doing so. We need to be humble about what we say or what we claim to know or our truth claims. This is one thing that progressive Christianity has instilled in us.

 

At the same time, it seems that because we are to be humble about what we know or claim or experience to be reality or the truth, that it sometimes comes across that we simply don't know anything, that we are blindly stumbling around in the dark and none of us has anything except extremely faulty human perception (illusion) going for us. So, again, why bother discussing matters of meaning, faith, and/or truth if it is hopelessly beyond us to know or experience it?

 

Please, I'm not pointing fingers. I myself know full well that when I talk of God, as my sig says, my opinions are my own. I know that I am attempting, metaphorically, to find the value of pi using only an abacus. But does this mean with can know nothing?!?

 

I know I am going to sound like a flaming fundamentalist conservative with this last related question, but it haunts me, even in my heterodoxy. Don't Christians of almost all flavors say that one reason that Jesus is valued is because he has, to some extent, made the unknowable known, the transcendent immanent, the ineffable effable, the truth somewhat accessible, even if still limited?

 

If it is true that all any of us has is our own unique, subjective experience that has no validity to it other than what we ourselves give it, then why bother talking about our illusory "whispers in the dark"? If we, collectively, know no more now about God/Reality after 6000 years of human and sacred experience, then what progress have we made? If life is all, as Socrates seemed to think, no more real or substantive than shadows cast by a fire on the walls of a cave, then why bother discussing any of it? Shouldn't we, then, as Ecclesiates says, just eat, drink, and be merry? Is it all ultimately vanity?

 

ws

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it sometimes comes across that we simply don't know anything, that we are blindly stumbling around in the dark and none of us has anything except extremely faulty human perception (illusion) going for us. So, again, why bother discussing matters of meaning, faith, and/or truth if it is hopelessly beyond us to know or experience it?

 

I think you underestimate human knowledge in science and mathematics and in discovering and revealing the secrets of the world around us. Human knowledge has advanced tremendously since the days of Jesus. I would hardly characterize our position as "blindly stumbling around in the dark."

 

Yes, in matters of religion, we can claim "faulty human perception," because of the nature of religious things. They are intrinsically unknowable because they deal with myth and superstition. These are by their very nature subjective things.

 

Please, I'm not pointing fingers. I myself know full well that when I talk of God, as my sig says, my opinions are my own. I know that I am attempting, metaphorically, to find the value of pi using only an abacus. But does this mean with can know nothing?!?

 

Well, in matters of religion and spirituality, I'd say the answer is; yes. We don't really know anything for sure. It isn't in the nature of religion to know ultimate truth. Truth in religion is by it's nature subjective.

 

Don't Christians of almost all flavors say that one reason that Jesus is valued is because he has, to some extent, made the unknowable known, the transcendent immanent, the ineffable effable, the truth somewhat accessible, even if still limited?

 

Well, for those who are followers of the Jesus story and philosophy, their truth is confirmed in the traditions and dogma surrounding him. Again, it's not a matter of empirical truth, as in physics or genetics - just the truth of the consistency of the world view.

 

 

If it is true that all any of us has is our own unique, subjective experience that has no validity to it other than what we ourselves give it, then why bother talking about our illusory "whispers in the dark"?

 

Because our world view, including our system of religious belief (or lack of religious beliefs, as in my case) -whether or not anyone else can validate its veracity or even worth - is part of our subjective self. These subjective things are what make each of us unique individuals, and are of invaluable worth.

 

 

If we, collectively, know no more now about God/Reality after 6000 years of human and sacred experience, then what progress have we made?

 

I believe that over that time we have evolved a secular version of our respective faith expressions that has greatly decreased the destructive nature of religious piety. In my mind, that is great progress.

 

NORM

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Why bother? Well, first we are social animals and predisposed to interact. Second, religion and religious thought have been around as long as we can look back into the history of our species. Further, we are predisposed to search for meaning in events and our lives. So, I think it is natural that we would share, compare and contrast our experiences and thoughts with others.

 

Is it all vanity? I don't think so. If nothing else, it helps us appreciate the variation and commonality.

 

George

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Thanks Bill, you ask some very powerful questions.

 

DT Suzuki once wrote that “there is nothing either explicable or inexplicable about reality as such, which is simply the state of things that are.” As far as language is concerned, we could say that language is not the whole of reality, but neither is reality apart from language/thought. That is to say, the world is constructed of meaning; meaning is not something foreign that is superimposed on the world; ‘meaning’ and ‘reality’ are not independently existing categories opposed to one another.

 

In this vein I draw from Whitehead in his broad category of "creativity." I would suggest that creativity does not refer to being "made up" or "illusory," but refers to the many shifting, magical connections that we call "life" or "actuality." Through creativity, practice, through wisdom and realization, I think genuine discoveries about the self and reality can be (and have been) made, though these discoveries are themselves creative, embodied discoveries. In other words, I suggest that "creativity" and "discovery" are not separately existing, as if the discovery was a pre-existing truth that lay waiting in a Platonic realm apart from our world of actuality and creativity. Rather, truth is to be found in realization of intimacy, actuality, here and now.

 

That's my take on the issue.

 

Peace,

Mike

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NORM, thanks for your response. Like I said, I am working through this question myself, so I appreciate the input. Please don't interpret my responses as challenges to you personally, only as my "thinking aloud" as I work through this.

 

I think you underestimate human knowledge in science and mathematics and in discovering and revealing the secrets of the world around us. Human knowledge has advanced tremendously since the days of Jesus. I would hardly characterize our position as "blindly stumbling around in the dark."

 

I agree. What I was referring to in "blindly stumbling around in the dark" was in the realm of religion. I am an electronic technician by trade, in the field of metrology, so science, math, and an analytical approach to things are quite important to me. Obviously, these disciplines of knowledge don't work well at all where religion is concerned. My vocation is very fulfilling to me. I would choose the same career field if I had to do it all over (except for maybe music). But the tools I use in my vocation are essentially worthless in my faith.

 

Yes, in matters of religion, we can claim "faulty human perception," because of the nature of religious things. They are intrinsically unknowable because they deal with myth and superstition. These are by their very nature subjective things.

 

Yes, that's what I meant. Isn't it just a waste of time to talk about what we all seem to agree is unknowable, almost like discussing a 5-sided square? Or the nature of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

 

Well, in matters of religion and spirituality, I'd say the answer is; yes. We don't really know anything for sure. It isn't in the nature of religion to know ultimate truth. Truth in religion is by it's nature subjective.

 

This is what I find, well, frustrating. Why? Because religion makes the claim or promise of the one thing that it cannot deliver - ultimate truth. I'm probably wrong (my nickname: Often Wrong, Seldom Unsure), but it seems logical to me that ultimate truth would, by definition, not be subjective. As long as it is subjective, it is only relative truth and, therefore, just more stumbling around in the dark. No one knows. No one is more lost than another. No one is more found than another. We just...are. Until we die. And then we...aren't.

 

Well, for those who are followers of the Jesus story and philosophy, their truth is confirmed in the traditions and dogma surrounding him. Again, it's not a matter of empirical truth, as in physics or genetics - just the truth of the consistency of the world view.

 

I chuckled when I read this, NORM, not at you, but because with 38,000 different Protestant Christian denomination, Christianity has absolutely no consistency in world view. :)

 

Because our world view, including our system of religious belief (or lack of religious beliefs, as in my case) -whether or not anyone else can validate its veracity or even worth - is part of our subjective self. These subjective things are what make each of us unique individuals, and are of invaluable worth.

 

I guess I struggle in seeing it this way. Every snowflake is unique. But they are not worth much. As far as I can believe at this point in my journey, whatever "uniqueness" I have now will be absorbed into Oneness when I die. Whether this is non-existence or what Christians call "the reconcilation of all things", the end result is the same -- my uniqueness is gone. It makes anything I do now of no significant worth whatsoever.

 

 

I believe that over that time we have evolved a secular version of our respective faith expressions that has greatly decreased the destructive nature of religious piety. In my mind, that is great progress.

 

I agree, at least as far as this life is concerned. But I still question "Why Bother?" when the earth will be burned up in 20 to 30 billion years? Some Christians are convinced it will be within this decade or century. It's just a bit deflating to spend one's life in search of meaning and then to discover that there ultimately is none.

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Thanks for your response, George.

 

Is it all vanity? I don't think so. If nothing else, it helps us appreciate the variation and commonality.

 

Maybe. Maybe.

 

I was like a fish out of water in Sunday School class this morning. One of the couples in our class, hopeful in soon becoming grandparents, requested prayer for their daughter who is newly pregant, but it is a very high risk pregnancy with the babies sharing the same placenta. There is a medical term for it, but it escapes me at the moment. So the teacher asked everyone who believed that God would perform a miracle for this couple to come forward, gather around these hopefully-future grandparents, lay hands on them, and pray for God's intervention. I guess I was too honest, I stayed in my chair -- the only one to do so. Everyone else there believes in this "Miracle-Worker" who, given the right words, will reach down from heaven and physically change things in this pregnancy. I'm surprised they didn't stone me. I just don't believe in God that way anymore. And I can't fake it. What does that make me? Certainly not a Christian. Christians believe in this miracle-working Christ who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. I'm doubting Thomas. Variation? Yes. Commonality? Not much. I don't believe as they do, but I have no coherent beliefs to replace my unbelief. All I have is my opinions. And you know what they say about those.

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That's my take on the issue.

 

Thanks for your response, Mike, but it was WAY over my head. My world is constructed of atoms and their components (as far as I can trust the experts to know). There is no magic in my world. I gave that up when we lost two children to miscarriage. Maybe that's why I couldn't go forward and have faith that this young couple's pregnancy would be okay if we "just prayed." I don't believe a lever on earth trips a lever in heaven. I know more about the kind of God I don't believe in than the kind that I do. But compared to the God that these Christians believe in, who will reach down and fix this womb, my God is impotent. And, as I'm often reminded here, may be just a figment of my imagination, my own personal illusion to help me get through another day.

 

ws

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Hi Bill,

 

Thanks for your response, Mike, but it was WAY over my head. My world is constructed of atoms and their components (as far as I can trust the experts to know). There is no magic in my world.

 

NT Wright has said that one problem with dogmas and creeds is that by their very nature they are like suitcases, packing tightly many ideas with big implications. Only by unpacking our respective suitcases can their true import be unlocked, and constructive dialogue take place. Otherwise, we are, as it were, merely clubbing each other in the head with our suitcases. :)

 

Now Wright's comment pertains to a very different context: I'm not very interested here in the traditional creeds. But he makes a really good general point, in that what we say tends to be packed with so many presuppositions that it's easy to talk past each other.

 

For instance, I really doubt that my words were intrinsically over your head, I just didn't communicate them very well because we no doubt approach things from very different points of view, so that the meaning of our words is not established between us. As far as 'magic' goes, that's all in the way one sees it. One man's magic is another man's natural world. Given how much your words are filled with theological reflections, I was kind of surprised that you would say 'no magic'.

 

I find it quite magical that we can find meaning in anything at all -- that language exists, that we are mindful of it, that we experience. When one says that the world is made of atoms, I ask, What are atoms? What are particles? Tiny conventional objects? Billiard ball-like, perhaps? How can such objects ever come to the point of asking about the meaning of their own existence? Which is more likely, that 'meaning' and 'mind' are just illusions or that there is more to our existence than the concept of "matter" conveys (or, at the very least, as Galen Strawson asked, that there are radical properties of matter which are presently unknown)?

 

From my perspective our very existence presupposes meaning and subjectivity, and there is no need to look for something external. "External" is the very meaning of 'object' or 'objective': 'outside' or 'outwardly defined'. As such the "object" serves as a conceptual designation rather than an empirical category. To approach this another way, we might say that meaning can only be meaning for subjects, not "objects." It makes little sense to ascribe to a "material object" the attributes of subjectivity. If the world is 'made of atoms', what is one to do with the empirical immanence of the world as unfolding in experience and meaning?

 

To clarify, when I use the word 'subjective' or 'subjectivity' I'm not referring to something unreal, illusory, or merely a matter of opinion. I use it as a true category of being. That is, "things" are not objects, they really are subjects. They don't merely serve to point to some external background against which random things are happening, they are in their very existence subjects, subject-ive. This is an understanding that goes way back to before the rise of the metaphysics of science. "Objectivity" always referred to the external surface of things, while their subjective nature was what lies underneath, hence the "sub" prefix, their inner reality, meaning, import or truth -- in Greek philosophy their 'essence'. The subjective existence of the thing was taken to be their real nature, rather than the objective description, which was a surface description-at-a-distance. As a strange consequence of modernity's philosophical beginnings, we winded up adopting a different metaphysic which flipped this around and gave metaphysical priority to the objectified description, making subjectivity secondary if not non-existent.

 

So, to get into the practical implications of taking 'meaning' seriously, and finding magic in one's own subjectivity and the fact that there is meaning at all. Even in tragedy -- there is meaning -- the meaning of the event for you. There is also meaning for me, because I feel sympathy for you as I read your words. And if the world really is made of atoms just-so, this is all the more inexplicable, magical. For if there were no meaning, there would neither be joy nor tragedy nor sympathy. I'm not necessarily talking about God or an externally-imposed meaning. With that or without that, I still see magic in our existence.

 

Peace to you,

Mike

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What I was referring to in "blindly stumbling around in the dark" was in the realm of religion.

 

I thought so. That's why I asked for clarification. Your OP seemed to be saying the opposite.

 

Isn't it just a waste of time to talk about what we all seem to agree is unknowable, almost like discussing a 5-sided square? Or the nature of the Flying Spaghetti Monster?

 

No, I don't think so. I liken religion / philosophy as looking at the unseen world through the many-sided facets of a brilliant diamond (the brilliance of a diamond is enhanced by the number of "cuts." The more cuts, the more reflective surfaces - hence; a more brilliant diamond). The more slices of "subjective truth" we encounter, the more brilliant our world view.

 

 

 

This is what I find, well, frustrating...religion makes the claim or promise of the one thing that it cannot deliver - ultimate truth...it seems logical to me that ultimate truth would, by definition, not be subjective. As long as it is subjective, it is only relative truth and, therefore, just more stumbling around in the dark. No one knows. No one is more lost than another. No one is more found than another. We just...are. Until we die. And then we...aren't.

 

I guess I just don't see it the same way as you. I find solace in the fact that there is no subjective truth. It makes me feel less stupid for not having "figured it all out." If there is a G-d, this is the ultimate joke, right? The meaning of life is:

 

The number 42

 

 

 

 

with 38,000 different Protestant Christian denomination, Christianity has absolutely no consistency in world view. :)

 

I guess that's their major fail. I mean, you would think if you were going to invest all this time and energy in fabricating a world view, you would at least try and be on the same page.

 

 

 

 

Every snowflake is unique. But they are not worth much. As far as I can believe at this point in my journey, whatever "uniqueness" I have now will be absorbed into Oneness when I die. Whether this is non-existence or what Christians call "the reconcilation of all things", the end result is the same -- my uniqueness is gone. It makes anything I do now of no significant worth whatsoever...But I still question "Why Bother?" when the earth will be burned up in 20 to 30 billion years? Some Christians are convinced it will be within this decade or century. It's just a bit deflating to spend one's life in search of meaning and then to discover that there ultimately is none.

 

Heh! You should watch It's a Wonderful Life. The theme of this film is the balm of Gilead for us non-theists. It's also what inspires me to do things that WILL have a bit of permanence.

 

I do have a pretty hefty life insurance policy!

 

NORM

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So the teacher asked everyone who believed that God would perform a miracle for this couple to come forward, gather around these hopefully-future grandparents, lay hands on them, and pray for God's intervention. I guess I was too honest, I stayed in my chair -- the only one to do so. Everyone else there believes in this "Miracle-Worker" who, given the right words, will reach down from heaven and physically change things in this pregnancy.

 

In the presence of the ineffable we are making it all up. Yes. Powerfully. And I hope humbly. It is not without meaning just because we are making it all up. It is a matter of life and death whether or not we use the right words. We can use the words that bring us life or the words that don't. Which words we do use matters.

 

I still have problems with some words used in church and I may have done the same thing you did Bill at least mentally. What if the teacher had said, "let's give them a big hug and some positive energy"? Would it be different?

 

"Lord have mercy on me a sinner." leaves me cold and is part of an inner world that I don't share. But I am building language that works for me around "Holy mother full of grace let me rest in your embrace."

 

There is the transcendent other, wholly other; but we desire a language to connect with that inner transcendent experience. For me that language will sound religious. That's my framewor . . .I should just shut up and quote Mike.

 

I would suggest that creativity does not refer to being "made up" or "illusory," but refers to the many shifting, magical connections that we call "life" or "actuality." Through creativity, practice, through wisdom and realization, I think genuine discoveries about the self and reality can be (and have been) made, though these discoveries are themselves creative, embodied discoveries. In other words, I suggest that "creativity" and "discovery" are not separately existing, as if the discovery was a pre-existing truth that lay waiting in a Platonic realm apart from our world of actuality and creativity. Rather, truth is to be found in realization of intimacy, actuality, here and now.

 

Dutch

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Well, here's my 2 cents FWIW...

 

I have asked myself "Why bother" pretty much every day of my life since my world view was challenged by my favorite progressive author (Michael Morwood). And some days I actually find an answer. Two things come to mind: First, a thing can be true without being factual, so yes, there is subjectivity to truth, imo. Secondly, I think that humankind's search for meaning is intrinsic, whether they find that meaning in God, in mathematics, in themselves, in tribbles , or in flying spaghetti monsters. Admittedly, some of these make more intuitive sense than others...

 

For me, personally, I bother because I refuse to believe its just our insignificant selves in this big wide universe; and the idea of God, as Ultimate Source, First Cause, Unmoved Mover, Mind of the Universe, Supreme Consciousness, or whatever, just make intuitive sense to me. The biggest difference, I think, between progressives and fundamentalists, is we allow our imagination and intuition to work in unison with our logic and reason. This is defintely a struggle for me, but I'm learning. And that, my friends, is why I bother. At least, that's my answer today.

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It does sometimes feel like we are groping about in a dark room trying to find a black cat that might not even be there, doesn't it?

 

I think sometimes we are so immersed within the magic we have become unable to see it anymore, we have allowed it to become the ordinary, the accustomed to mundane. It does seem to take a certain "stepping back from" or "outside of" our ordinary state of conciousness, to be able to observe the magic, the improbability of our very existence, the very existence of the cosmos we inhabit. We have learned that everything that we once thought solid really isn't solid at all but a coincidental arrangement of countless tiny moving parts, that for some inexplicable reason maintian an order of arrangement that appears to us as something solid, even allows our own existence as a discreet body instead of as just countless atoms and sub-atomic particles all flying about every which away.

 

And then we learn that it all isn't even particles, but mere energy, emmantating at different frequencies, and it all become even more incredible, more miraculous, this very state of existance itself.

 

So why do we continue to grope about the dark room trying to find the black cat that we are not even sure is there to begin with?

Because at some time, some point, in our experience in our span of existence, we have thought we have felt, if in only the briefest instant, if only in the faintest fleeting touch, what seemed a bit of silken fur brush lighly against our skin, the soft warmth of a living body close to our own, the faintest vibration of a purr....and in our desperation to not feel alone in the dark, we ever seek to experience it again, as an affirmation that we are not alone, lost and groping in the dark for something while at once also fearing there really is nothing there.

 

Jenell

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I still have problems with some words used in church and I may have done the same thing you did Bill at least mentally. What if the teacher had said, "let's give them a big hug and some positive energy"? Would it be different?

Dutch

 

Exactly! Different words, same result.

 

George

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I guess the situation at my Sunday School class yesterday just reinforced to me how clueless we are about the nature of life and reality.

When I was a conservative fundamentalist and prayer failed to render the desired results we wanted, we either said that what we wanted was not God’s will or that God’s ways are not our ways or the ultimate response, “God is a mystery.” I always felt like these answers were copouts, especially given the fundamentalist mindset that claims that God can be known in a personal way.

 

I hoped that exploring liberal or progressive Christianity would help me to understand God better, not so that I could run away from life’s problems, but so that I could face them head on and find divine guidance or help. It wasn’t so much that I was looking for simple, unassailable answers, just a consistency in worldview. Psychologists say that we are, by nature, meaning-seeking creatures, that we want or need to make sense of our world. Without meaning, we feel that life has no purpose or worth, so they say.

 

What I’ve discovered, in my opinion, is that the liberal/progressive side takes the same out that the fundamentalists do, that God is complete mystery. Only, again in my opinion, the liberal/progressive side says that all of life and all of existence is this way – all is mystery. I suppose that, as has been said, this is just the nature of religion, that all is shrouded in darkness, whether we approach it from the right side or the left side.

 

Yes, in my former days I would have gone forward, placed my hands on this couple, and trusted along with them for some magic, some miracle. And, yes, yesterday I could have just hugged them and let them know that my thoughts and prayers would be with them. But I doubt that they really wanted a hug. What they want is to hold their grandchildren. And my faith, whether it was from my former conservative side or from my newer progressive side, cannot offer them that.

 

Maybe I should go back to my childlike naivety-based faith. Granted, it didn’t provide me with all the answers I wanted. But at least it didn’t tell me that there were no answers. Granted, it told me that God’s reality was not my reality. But at least it didn’t tell me that there is no such thing as reality. Granted, it told me that some things about God were a mystery. But it didn’t tell me that everything was mystery and, therefore, meaningless.

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I think the following is appropriate.

 

'I urge you to dismiss every clever or subtle thought no matter how holy or valuable. Cover it over with a thick cloud of forgetting because in this life only love can touch God as he is in himself, never knowledge.' ~ The Cloud of Unknowing

 

http://www.facebook.com/beamsandstruts

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Yes, in my former days I would have gone forward, placed my hands on this couple, and trusted along with them for some magic, some miracle. And, yes, yesterday I could have just hugged them and let them know that my thoughts and prayers would be with them. But I doubt that they really wanted a hug. What they want is to hold their grandchildren.

 

Maybe what they wanted was a miracle. Instead, they got the comfort of knowing that a group of people cared about them. That doesn't seem so fruitless to me.

 

The value, from the perspective of those praying for them, is, IMO, that this was a way of expressing their sincere hopes in a situation over which they had no control. And, it is stronger than just thinking, 'Gee, I hope things work out for them, what's for lunch.'

 

Just vanity? I don't think so.

 

P.S. Having said this, I probably would have abstained from participating as well because it might signal that I agreed with the miracle aspects of the action.

 

George

Edited by GeorgeW
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Maybe I should go back to my childlike naivety-based faith. Granted, it didn’t provide me with all the answers I wanted. But at least it didn’t tell me that there were no answers. Granted, it told me that God’s reality was not my reality. But at least it didn’t tell me that there is no such thing as reality. Granted, it told me that some things about God were a mystery. But it didn’t tell me that everything was mystery and, therefore, meaningless.

 

If you do, you will not be alone. This is a valid solution, at least according to Marcus Borg. It's not so much that one remains at this point, but rather it can become a place of renewal and centering out of which one sees the world from a new prespective. I have done this myself in the past few months and found the experience reinvigorating.

 

Myron

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Progressive Christianity is effectively the 'photo negative' of the religious right, where certainty and community are built at the risk of tribalism. There are good reasons for this. Progressive Christianity allows for pluralism, promotes diversity, and accepts a degree of uncertainty and self-reflection as necessary.

 

WS, I completely agree that if one isn't careful, PC can lead to some bad places. You seem most concerned with postmodern nihilism (no truth, no meaning), but we can also talk about moral relativism, a perennialism* (“all religions really say the same thing”) that risks deforming specific traditions, and the transformation of spirituality into just another consumer product.

 

Progessive Christianity's virtues and flaws all come from the fact that it does not offer a religious anchor for one's politics. Once again, this is the opposite of the religious right, which attempts to collapse the religious & the political into a single, perfectly stable field).

 

These things can be avoided if we put “progressive” in relation to something. Progressive Presbyterian in my case, but others may use other traditions or anchors. It's a mouthful, but it seem several people here tend toward a progressive Buddhist/Christian syncretism. Others towards a rational humanism that wishes to avoid fully dismissing spirituality. Or whatever; I'm not going to analyze everyone on the board. I can tell you how I link Progressive and Reformed Christianity, however, as that's what I do. However, simply saying, “I'm a progressive Christian” isn't enough, for exactly the same reason that “I'm for diversity” isn't a fully articulated ethic.

 

I had a whole post about meaning coming from the act of reading, and all readers of all texts must always figure out meanings for themselves, blah blah blah... really, though, it comes around to a simple point: I identify (to some degree) as a progressive Christian because, at its best, progressive Christianity seems to be better organized around the question, “how can we live meaningfully with truths that are partial, multiple, and not always compatible?” At least when compared to the religious right.

 

I accept certain truths, propositions, mysteries, and myths as acts of faith. I then use those unjustifiable positions as the basis for action and reflection.

 

Re-reading this post, I don't think I've helped as much as I wanted to.

 

 

* I realize this may be a point of contention for people here, and I'm open to discussing it. I just wanted to avoid cluttering up this post with full explanations of all these problems. However, I think there are dangerous issues associated with excessive relativism, certain types of perennialism, and a spirituality built on a consumer logic. And furthermore, I really do think that Progressive Christianity necessarily involves these risks.

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Hi Bill,

 

I hoped that exploring liberal or progressive Christianity would help me to understand God better, not so that I could run away from life’s problems, but so that I could face them head on and find divine guidance or help. It wasn’t so much that I was looking for simple, unassailable answers, just a consistency in worldview.

 

I agree that there's a great deal of inconsistency from one progressive Christian to the next. Perhaps Progressive Christianity as such isn't the place for consistency really, given the great range of perspectives. But I'd also emphasize that this does not preclude individual progressive Christians from having a consistent worldview.

 

Psychologists say that we are, by nature, meaning-seeking creatures, that we want or need to make sense of our world. Without meaning, we feel that life has no purpose or worth, so they say.

 

From my point of view, meaning is presupposed in our very existence; it's not merely that we 'seek' meaning in a place where there is none. We exist, therefore we cannot escape meaning. Every mote of dust springs from causes intimate to you; how can they be predicated on meaninglessness? Even if we say "life is meaningless", we still find meaning in that. To me, meaning flows from existence itself. Where else would it come from?

 

What I’ve discovered, in my opinion, is that the liberal/progressive side takes the same out that the fundamentalists do, that God is complete mystery. Only, again in my opinion, the liberal/progressive side says that all of life and all of existence is this way – all is mystery. I suppose that, as has been said, this is just the nature of religion, that all is shrouded in darkness, whether we approach it from the right side or the left side.

 

I think that not all mysteries are the same. For instance, "What is dark matter?" is a great mystery. That's one type of mystery, the root cause of which is ignorance. Here's another mystery of a slightly different order, say, "Are there other universes out there?" This too is a question of ignorance, but we have good reason to believe it to be one that will forever remain "shrouded in darkness."

 

But these mysteries are not the mysteries dealt with in religion. These are a matter of ignorance concerning what could in principle be verified more or less empirically.

 

Existence/Sacredness is a mystery in principle. The fact that we do not understand it has nothing to do with the level of ignorance on our part. It is intrinsically beyond both "knowledge" and "ignorance". And yet if it is a "secret", it is an open one. It is here, now. Where else do you expect to find your Source? It may be "darkness" to thought (or perhaps less poetically: for thought it is negation, deconstruction), but to the soul this mystery is the very lightness of being.

 

Bill, I am not intending to be confrontational here, just making a judgment based on my observations with the intentions of furthering dialogue: It seems that you are running aground on certain preconceptions or expectations of the way you expect reality and knowledge to be. I get the impression that a lot of this hinges on the ideas of "objective truth" vs "subjective truth." But does not "objectivity", when taken to an extreme, seem to be a standard or concept which by its very nature is absolutely impossible to satisfy? No matter what you experience and no matter what you say, it will never meet the predetermined criterion of "objectivity." But why trouble yourself over a mere tautology? I think objectivity is a method by which we make statements about reality, it is not a state of being. That is, "reality" is not an "object". When we (mis)take "objectivity" to be reality, we might find that nothing can satisfy that category of being "real" merely by definition, for it rests on something of an oxymoron.

 

Why do I think it is an oxymoron? Because any truth (especially any 'ultimate truth') must wholly implicate and invoke my subjectivity. Yet, if the ultimate truth is purely objective, it is completely removed from my existence and has nothing to do with me. It is therefore of no consequence, and what is of no consequence is not real. Likewise, my subjectivity must wholly implicate ultimate truth, for if I am removed from ultimate truth and have nothing to do with it, then I am of no consequence, and hence not real (if the word "ultimate" is throwing you off, just drop it and read "truth"). Therefore, for "ultimate truth" to be purely objective, either ultimate truth or subjectivity has to go.

 

It seems that we have been oscillating between these two options without seeing a middle way. Why must we choose either? I suggest that subjectivity is real, and that ultimate truth is not 'out there'. "Objective meaning" would be an oxymoron because meaning must be meaning for subjects, not objects. Therefore the short version of my answer: nothing can be an object to itself. Case in point: I would think that the ultimate truth cannot be "42" -- because then one would ask, "What is the meaning of that?" But if I'm removed from it enough to ask about it, how can it be ultimate? My subjectivity is separate; it has lost its supremacy. Such a scenario is rooted in the non-empirical belief that there is an 'objective' ground or background against which our lives are taking place. I believe that the empirical immanence of the world suggests otherwise -- that life itself is itself the arising of truth, no need to look for a 'background' somewhere 'out there'.

 

Peace,

Mike

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Nick,

 

WS, I completely agree that if one isn't careful, PC can lead to some bad places. You seem most concerned with postmodern nihilism (no truth, no meaning), but we can also talk about moral relativism, a perennialism* (“all religions really say the same thing”) that risks deforming specific traditions, and the transformation of spirituality into just another consumer product.

 

I really agree with this. I adopt an opposite form of postmodernism, where meaning and reality are interpenetrating and superabundant, they are always self-transcending in what we say and do, being truly given in our speech and yet leaving so much left unsaid. I also try to avoid an all-out moral relativism. Basically, I try to be aware that any worldview has as its support the pre-rational, prearticulate truth, and I try to honor that truth without the pretense of objectifying and boxing it up.

 

Peace,

Mike

Edited by Mike
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WS, I completely agree that if one isn't careful, PC can lead to some bad places. You seem most concerned with postmodern nihilism (no truth, no meaning), but we can also talk about moral relativism, a perennialism* (“all religions really say the same thing”) that risks deforming specific traditions, and the transformation of spirituality into just another consumer product.

 

That may be a pretty accurate diagnosis, Nick. More than likely (or at least I hope), I'm going through another doubt/growth stage. But I think you have something there in that, in my past faith, God was simply too small, too constrainted to one and only one interpretation. I wasn't allowed to think outside the box. Truth was something that one posessed and defended, not something that one had a life-long pursuit of. And not only was God metaphorically too small, but my inner life was also. I felt like my insides were in a torniquet and I couldn't break free.

 

My journey in PC has been, for the most part, wonderful. I don't at all want to give the impression that I think I took a wrong turn in exploring whatever this is that we call Progressive Christianity. But, and this may be just my interpretation of things, God is now so nebulous that I just don't know how to relate to God anymore. It is as if the only truth that exists is in my mind, and my seeking of God has always been characterized by looking for something "More" than myself.

 

An analogy that may describe this is to picture the contents of an air freshner confined to a can. Conservative Christianity says that God is confined to this one, and only one, can. Now, if we spray the can, letting God fully escape from the can, the air around us initially has this wonderful fragrance. But eventually, God disperses so much that nothing more can be sensed, God has become too diffused. So I went from a paradigm where God is so confined as to be in one place (and each church pretty much claimed to be that one place) to another paradigm where God is so "everywhere" that God is effectually nowhere. So the only thing I have left is the memory of the smell.

 

Maybe I am simply still very immature in my faith. I still want and need a God who is more than just "in my mind", a God who is bigger than me. I don't find this "we can't understand or talk about God" to be very meaningful to me. Again, maybe left to our own devices, we can't. But I'm still "conservative" enough to think that Jesus is some kind of "Word" that makes understanding and talking about God possible, even if we have to do it very humbly and carefully. I can't go back to "God in the can" who only comes out when our prayers release a little spray. But neither do I find the notion that God is so undefinable, so ineffable, so diffuse as to pretty much non-existent to be very helpful or meaningful to me.

 

I still trust in God even though I'm not sure what I believe about God any more. In other words, I trust that somehow God is behind this journey that I am on. But, yes, in all honesty I do have to consider if the direction (or perhaps lack of one) that I find in PC is right (important words coming) for me. I realize the foolishness of trying to put God in a can. At the same time, I wouldn't find much enjoyment or meaning in a "mystery" movie where, when the end of the movie comes and you've tried to understand where it is going, a notice comes on the screen that says, "You have to decide for yourself what this movie means or if there is a resolution. The writers and producers have left it wide open to interpretation." At that point, I would feel as though I've wasted my time and money. I wouldn't need every plot line tied up in a nice bow (I do enjoy sequels), but I would like there to be some meaning present, meaning outside of myself, meaning from something More than just me.

 

ws

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Mike, thanks for the response. I know that we all live by faith. There is nothing in life that we are absolutely certain of. I'm reminded of the Star Trek movie (IV) where Spock, who is usually prone to great precision in everything, has to make a "guess" at the equations necessary to get their ship to move back from the past to the future-present. Kirk says, in utter disbelief, "A guess?!? You, Spock, a guess?!? That's extraordinary!" Spock says, "I will, therefore, make the best guess that I can." I suspect that that is all we really have, the best guesses we can come up with.

 

The trick, imo, is not to let the fact that we are guessing immobilize us. For instance, I have no guarantee that I will make it driving to work tomorrow. I could be involved in an accident and die. But I will still set out for work "on faith" because though I have no assurances, the "law of averages" are fairly consistent that I will get there and back without a major mishap (unless I do something stupid).

 

So I have to live this life "by faith" with a few things that I am relatively confident of. If I required absolute certainly before making any decisions or living my life, I would be in a corner in a fetal position. Life calls me to take the risks. Life is about experience, not about security.

 

But I just wish that, while PC is excellent at deconstruction, it could work at reconstruction, at a humble and even somewhat malleable paradigm of what we might be "relatively confident" of. Unfortunately, such is not the case, at least here. We have to preface everything with "it seems to me" or "in my opinion." I understand that such is supposed to convey humility, but it does come across as an implication that we are not concerned with truth, or that we have given up on truth, or that truth is so subjective as to be of no import. To me, it means that we haven't given things much thought and probably won't. And I just don't think that humanity has progressed whenever we have "stopped thinking." To accept that things just "are the way they are", while perhaps being an underpinning concept in the way a Buddhist finds enlightenment, just doesn't seem to line up with what I believe Jesus taught about seeking for and working for the kingdom of God on earth.

 

I can't help but wonder, in a fun way, what would happen if the Jesus of the gospels tried to post here today? What would happen if he dared to speak for God on this forum? What would happen if he dared to claim that his opinions were not his own, but God's? What would happen if he tried to tell us on this forum how we should live? Would he be comfortable with progressive Christianity? Just wondering aloud.

 

ws

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An analogy that may describe this is to picture the contents of an air freshner confined to a can. Conservative Christianity says that God is confined to this one, and only one, can. Now, if we spray the can, letting God fully escape from the can, the air around us initially has this wonderful fragrance. But eventually, God disperses so much that nothing more can be sensed, God has become too diffused. So I went from a paradigm where God is so confined as to be in one place (and each church pretty much claimed to be that one place) to another paradigm where God is so "everywhere" that God is effectually nowhere. So the only thing I have left is the memory of the smell.

 

I completely agree that we should not chain God, restricting God to a particular "theology from ecclesiastical antiquity," to use a phrase from Karl Barth.

 

Again, I think it is important for everyone here, myself included, that there is no such thing as a progressive Christian doctrine of God. On this forum, we have Presbyterians, Anglicans, Gnostics, Process theologians, Spong supporters, atheists, Jews, new agers ,and countless more groups to boot. I think sometimes we, as a group, sometimes think we can create a progressive doctrine of Christianity, but we can't. When we try, we end up with something that caters to the vaguest common denominator, and that won't help anybody. It is better to think of this place as a clearinghouse for ideas than as a source of a specific stance on Christianity.

 

Maybe I am simply still very immature in my faith. I still want and need a God who is more than just "in my mind", a God who is bigger than me. I don't find this "we can't understand or talk about God" to be very meaningful to me. Again, maybe left to our own devices, we can't. But I'm still "conservative" enough to think that Jesus is some kind of "Word" that makes understanding and talking about God possible, even if we have to do it very humbly and carefully. I can't go back to "God in the can" who only comes out when our prayers release a little spray. But neither do I find the notion that God is so undefinable, so ineffable, so diffuse as to pretty much non-existent to be very helpful or meaningful to me.

 

I sympathize with a lot of what you just said. I mean, I consider myself some version of Reformed Christian. I accept Nicea and Chalcedon, and I tend to emphasize the sovereignty of God in the way I view things. So, I guess where you've stayed conservative, I have become conservative in some senses. Of course, looking at the 8 points, the point is not what your specific doctrine of God is. Rather, any form of Christianity that loves and accepts pluralism and diversity should at least have a place here.

 

At the same time, I wouldn't find much enjoyment or meaning in a "mystery" movie where, when the end of the movie comes and you've tried to understand where it is going, a notice comes on the screen that says, "You have to decide for yourself what this movie means or if there is a resolution. The writers and producers have left it wide open to interpretation." At that point, I would feel as though I've wasted my time and money. I wouldn't need every plot line tied up in a nice bow (I do enjoy sequels), but I would like there to be some meaning present, meaning outside of myself, meaning from something More than just me.

 

To stay within the analogy, I'm sure you've seen a movie that you enjoyed but other people disliked. I hope that didn't ruin your enjoyment. Or maybe you thought a certain character was awesome, and someone else thought they were the most boring bit. Maybe you and people who share your general opinion about movies (what qualifies as a good movie, who is a good director, actor, etc) get together and have an online forum, or go to showings of your favorite movies, or something else. And that would be great. ...It would be less great if you became a movie snob and thought your opinion was the only right opinion. But as we all know, there are lots of movie snobs out there.

 

That's all we're (we = postmodernists) saying here: life, the universe, and everything, is necessarily open for interpretation, lots of interpretation. Religious communities are, first and foremost, interpretive communities, built around certain assumptions about how you're supposed to understand the world around us. Some of those basic tenets aren't really statements that can be rationally analyzed, but rather become tools & starting points for rational analysis. The religious right, however, are movie snobs ;)

 

EDIT: Also, when I say I accept the mystery of the trinity, that isn't me choosing the punchline, though one could maybe argue I'm choosing which "movie to see". But the entire point is for me to say, ok, now, given I believe this, what does this mean? And then build up from there, as rationally and reflectively as I can

Edited by Nick the Nevermet
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