The Evolution of Religion: Toward Religious Pluralism: Part 1

Jeremy Sig

Part I: Brief History of Religions Part II: Definitions Part III: A Way Forward

Part I: Brief History of Religions

re11The subject of Pluralism is inherently convoluted and voluminous. On one hand, pluralistic theories deal simply with the interplay of religious entities. On the other, they deal with the complex web of theological nuances that exist within each great faith tradition. None the less I have decided to tackle the issue of pluralism in this series.

Before I begin I would like to lay some groundwork for my positions. More pointedly I would like to clarify what I am not saying. I am not going to argue for some form of monism nor from a position that all great faiths are essentially the same. Both of these betrays the unique beauty that each faith holds and ultimately destroys the value that each faith brings to the table. Also I am not arguing that religious exclusivism is invalid or that it is based solely in ignorance. We have moved passed a stage in which religious intolerance was simply the outcome of religions having misinformed positions of each other, although this is still the culprit of some of the religious bigotry that we experience.

Having laid some groundwork I believe it most beneficial to begin this series of posts on pluralism with a brief history of religion. This will not and cannot be comprehensive. It is simply a cursory review of how religious thought has evolved over time. While there are surely exceptions to every trend the basic flow of religious thought is largely agreed upon by historians. The topic of this post has been heavily influenced by the works of Karen Armstrong and John Hick to a lesser degree. That said this will not be a review of their positions. George, that is for you (just because I said his name doesn’t mean I am spouting his positions).

To lay out a history of religious thought is by nature quite difficult. Any good history has a fixed point from which it begins. Unfortunately, religious thought has been part of human experience since seemingly the beginning of time. Because of this ambiguity at the onset there is much dissent as to the earliest forms of religious expression. Historians and theologians alike cannot agree on whether early or natural religion was monotheistic or polytheistic in nature.

Wilhelm Schmidt popularized the theory that early religious thought emphasized the transcendence of God or the Gods to explain the unexplainable mysteries and tragedies of life.This early religious belief of the divine seemed to inherently create distance between humanity and the transcendent that it worshipped. Eventually, this divine status rendered the transcendent too unrelateable for humanity and was replaced by more human Gods.Whether this theory is accurate or not is still being debated. However, there are three aspects of this theory that align with our understanding of the ancient period.The first is that the emphasis of transcendence to fill the voids of human knowledge fits well with the pre-modern mindset of the time. The second is that religious thought is incredibly resilient and adaptable to the needs of mankind in every age.

There is a third, and even more interesting, correlation between Schmidt’s theory and our understanding of religious thought. This third aspect is the emergence of what Karl Jasper’s called the axial age. Schmidt’s understanding of the personalization and personification of divinity aligns itself with this religious age in which many of the religions of the modern world found the source of their religious thought.

The axial age roughly spanned between 800 BCE and 200 BCE. Like any other great shift in religious thought, the axial religions sprung up out of a shift in the culture. The rise of a middle class greatly strengthened the influence of the lesser in society. As a result, religious thought was forced to become valuable not only to the leaders. During this time period new ways of speaking of God began to take hold across the globe. In China a great religious thinker named Confucius burst onto the scene. From his writings would come the great religions of Taoism and Confucianism.

In India Mahavira and Siddhartha Gautama both lived. From their teachings would spring the religions of Jainism and Buddhism. Also Hinduism moved from the cold teachings of the Vedas by way of a new revelation known as the Vedanta or end of the Vedas. The Vendatas, composed of two works the Upanishads and Aranyakas, emphasized the cultivation of the relationship between ones self and the transcendent which presides within.

In the Middle East two new religions were taking off, both from the same monotheistic perspective. First in Iran a new teacher known only as Zoroaster began to teach the value of a singular, personal, transcendent entity. The second was the rising of the Hebrew prophets in Israel. They too emphasized the intimacy of God. Finally, in Greece came the rise of philosophical rationalism via the teachings of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle.

In every region of the globe new religious thought was being cultivated. Each revelation was uniquely fashioned for the culture to which it spoke. None the less there was a common theme that emerged. The emphasis of intimacy with the transcendent. They spoke about this relationship in different ways, and saw it manifest with varied perspectives. However, from this intimacy came a universal emphasis on the value of compassion within religious life.

This new perspective on God would continue to shape the theology of the great faiths through the rest of the pre-modern period. In the far East Confucianism would develop into a complex ethical doctrine of compassion. Likewise Taoism focused on a pacifistic approach to life. In the Middle East the teachings of Zoroaster, though not in an official capacity, would strongly influence the teachings of the Hebrew monotheists. From them would spring the three great monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Each would use the emphasis on compassion to bring new ways to understand God. Judaism would focus on God’s compassion for the world via the illumination of the path to God through the life emphasized by their religious piety. Christianity would emphasize compassion through the spiritual act of reconciliation. Finally, Islam would focus on compassion by emphasizing the unity of God as a moral mandate to care for others. In the West, philosophical rationalism continued to work out this emphasis on compassion via morally mandated complex political structures.

These religions would continue to formulate new doctrines and dogmas based on their earlier understandings right through to the enlightenment of the 17th century. With the enlightenment came a new movement that would again change the religious landscape. This new movement was modernism. While in many ways modernism shared the common value of compassion with the world’s religions, it had one major departure which would send the religious world spinning. Modernism’s emphasis on human intuition as the answer to the problems of the world flew right in the face of every religions understanding of divine empowerment. While the pre-modern age had seen the unknown as the place where the transcendent dwelt, modernists saw it simply as the next frontier. This led to an emphasis on human progress conquering the ills of society instead of spiritual connection lifting individuals above.

As each great religion began to face this new modern spirit it gave rise to new religious movements unique to each religion but commonly categorized as fundamentalism. A new conservative spirit was formed. This conservative spirit would see modernism as a personal affront to the great faiths. In each religion fundamentalist sects would form, each with unique ways of dealing with the attacks of modernism. Yet in spite of their attempts modernisms influence was far too pervasive. As modernism has systematically run its course through each sector of the globe, it has left its imprint on conservative and liberal alike. Even the conservative movements in each faith, which were based in a desire to hold fast to what once was, have changed the way they understand their own faiths. The history of each faith tradition is viewed through a lens of modernism. Many of the ideals and pragmatics that have been established in every faith, in response to modernism, are seen as normative.

This brings us to the emergence of yet another great shift in the religious landscape. As the influence of modernism has begun to fade on culture, a new counter movement has begun to take hold. With the creation of a new post-modern cultural mindset comes a new set of challenges and opportunities for all the great faiths. In my next post in this series I will look at some of the religious responses to modernism and how they will once again be forced to change with the onset of a post-modern culture. Specifically I will focus on exclusivism and why I believe that its relevancy is based in the modern culture for which it was a response to.

In closing I leave you with this picture. Modernism is a wave which has slowly washed over every culture and thus every religion. With that wave came the opportunity for the worlds great religions to wash themselves clean of some of the dogmas of pre-modernism that were holding them back. Things like racism, bigotry, and ethnocentrism were seen in a new more informed light. Yet behind every wave is a wake. The wake provides time to reassess what has been lost and to determine a new way forward. Post-modernism is that wake. I believe that every great religion has or is going through the process of washing that the wave of modernism brought. Soon we will be in a global wake of reassessment. The questions that each religion will bring to the table will be unique. None the less, let us hope that they all come.
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Continue on to Part II

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28 Comments

  1. Jeremy:

    Let me say something about my take on religion as a way of getting into a series of questions about your take.

    In my opinion, there are basically two ways to think of religion: as a human projection or as a divine revelation.

    In the former, human beings attempt to discover a transcendent reality, and in the process create a variety of culturally-relative spiritual myths. (I mean “myth” in a technical sense of a story about the divine, not in the sense of “falsehood.”) Because these myths are culturally sensitive, they can evolve as various cultures interact with and learn from one another. An example would be the way the Greeks and later Romans absorbed Egyptian spiritual myths into their own pantheons.

    Religion in the latter sense, as divine revelation, assumes that God–not humanity–is in the driver’s seat, so to speak. If in religion-as-human-projection, humanity discovers God, in religion-as-divine-revelation, God uncovers himself. Whereas religion-as-human-projection is culturally relative because each culture is grasping after the incomprehensible, religion-as-divine-revelation is absolute, insofar as God is making himself comprehensible to us.

    This is a sketch of basic options, in my opinion. There are nuances, subtleties, and complexities with each position, but in broad strokes, I think those are the basic issues.

    Now, having laid my cards on the table, I come to my question: Doesn’t your history of religions presuppose that religion is a human projection? Alternatively, would a history of religions that took religion as a divine revelation look completely different than the one you’ve sketched above.

    For example: Islam teaches that God has given each culture a prophet. This seems to allow for a degree of pluralism, since Muslims can recognize the holy books of religions such as Judaism and Christianity. But if you dig further, you discover that Muslims believe Jews and Christians have distorted the prophecies God gave them, which is why Muhammad was given to humanity as God’s final, authoritative prophet: to correct misunderstood and culpably misinterpreted prophecies.

    Which brings me to my last question: Why should a believer accept the human-projection history of religion if his own religion teaches something more like a divine-revelation history of religion?

    George

    Reply

  2. Jeremy:

    ———-
    For some reason, the following is not posting, but it’s nonetheless telling me that I’ve got a duplicate comment. So, I’m adding this note in hopes that it won’t think I’m duplicating yet again. If that makes sense…
    ———-

    Let me say something about my take on religion as a way of getting into a series of questions about your take.

    In my opinion, there are basically two ways to think of religion: as a human projection or as a divine revelation.

    In the former, human beings attempt to discover a transcendent reality, and in the process create a variety of culturally-relative spiritual myths. (I mean “myth” in a technical sense of a story about the divine, not in the sense of “falsehood.”) Because these myths are culturally sensitive, they can evolve as various cultures interact with and learn from one another. An example would be the way the Greeks and later Romans absorbed Egyptian spiritual myths into their own pantheons.

    Religion in the latter sense, as divine revelation, assumes that God–not humanity–is in the driver’s seat, so to speak. If in religion-as-human-projection, humanity discovers God, in religion-as-divine-revelation, God uncovers himself. Whereas religion-as-human-projection is culturally relative because each culture is grasping after the incomprehensible, religion-as-divine-revelation is absolute, insofar as God is making himself comprehensible to us.

    This is a sketch of basic options, in my opinion. There are nuances, subtleties, and complexities with each position, but in broad strokes, I think those are the basic issues.

    Now, having laid my cards on the table, I come to my question: Doesn’t your history of religions presuppose that religion is a human projection? Alternatively, would a history of religions that took religion as a divine revelation look completely different than the one you’ve sketched above.

    For example: Islam teaches that God has given each culture a prophet. This seems to allow for a degree of pluralism, since Muslims can recognize the holy books of religions such as Judaism and Christianity. But if you dig further, you discover that Muslims believe Jews and Christians have distorted the prophecies God gave them, which is why Muhammad was given to humanity as God’s final, authoritative prophet: to correct misunderstood and culpably misinterpreted prophecies.

    Which brings me to my last question: Why should a believer accept the human-projection history of religion if his own religion teaches something more like a divine-revelation history of religion?

    George

    Reply

  3. Jeremy:

    I’m looking forward to these posts! I think it’s important to get a little more of your perspective on this blog so our readers know where you’re coming from when you leave comments. I have a few questions but I imagine you might touch on them in future posts:

    1. What is the definition of a religion? Humanism, Agnosticism, and Atheism, etc… do not necessarily have a “connection to transcendence” in the traditional sense but they can provide their adherents with moral systems that often contain compassion. What I’m getting at is; is it even possible to identify any single characteristic of all religions and thus make observations about their nature and progress?

    2. Are you arguing that fundamentalism is a product of modernism? Would exclusivism fit into this category?

    George

    1. Is it possible that there is a third way of looking at religions? That is: Humans using the cultural tools available to them to make sense of divine actions?

    2. I agree that Jeremy approaches religious study with the presupposition that they are human projection. But we equally approach it with the presupposition that there is something of a divine will pushing them. In my mind, we’re both guilty (or perhaps merely human).

    That’s all for now.

    Reply

  4. George,

    Are you creating a false dichotomy here? Do we not have evidence of both these elements within the biblical record? How would you explain the epic of Gilgamesh and other ANE “myths” (in the technical sense). The antedated, extra biblical meta- narratives of antiquity lend historical plausibility to the Hebrew Scriptures, why would we reject their contribution in such a broad stroke? How would you explain the obvious editing of biblical documents by later generations? Am I misunderstanding you?

    I might also be suspicious that both you and Jeremy are trying unfairly to frame the parameters of the discussion so as to provide advantages, but I don’t want to jump to conclusions.

    Reply

  5. Reed:

    Yes, logically speaking, that is a third option.

    Instead of religion as “Humans using the cultural tools available to them to make sense of divine actions,” I prefer to think of it as “God using the cultural tools available to humans to explain his own actions.” The latter formulation is, I think, better rooted in the Christian tradition than the former.

    Shawn:

    At this point, I’m not critiquing what Jeremy has written. I’m asking for clarifications. I think he’s done a nice job of laying out a particular historical understanding of religion. All I’m trying to clarify is whether that particular understanding rests on certain religious presuppositions which a traditional believer (Jew, Muslim, or Christian) might disagree with.

    George

    Reply

  6. George,

    I understand that it was not a critique, but asking for clarification. However, what I am asking you is, do your questions ask the respondent to concede a fundamental parameter that you want to operate within? Just think of what happens to the discussion if he affirms one of your two choices. Now, he very well may have only one of those things in mind, but I am suspicious (hello skeptic here, in most senses of the word) that by forcing him to admit one of only two options presented by you that the discussion is going to take a turn decidedly in favor of some points you already have waiting for future posts.

    Reply

  7. Shawn:

    I’m not trying to spring a trap. Jeremy already knows my take on John Hick’s version of pluralism, and he also knows that I think similar difficulties attach themselves to any version of pluralism.

    I’m not forcing him to choose between my two options. And anyway, Reed has already given a third option. Perhaps there are more. All I’m trying to point out is how theory-laden any discussion of religion is. The question then becomes why I should accept someone’s theory about religion when it doesn’t match my own. Presumably there are some criteria that can help people decide between competing theories–the laws of logic, for example, which don’t seem particularly popular on this site. Or historical criteria. Or moral criteria, which seem to be Jeremy’s preferred ones, based on his citation of “compassion.”

    Since pluralism is not a religion, but a theory about religion, it will be helpful to know on what grounds Jeremy proposes that pluralism is s better theory than exclusivism. (In my opinion, inclusivism is an attenuated form of exclusivism.)

    George

    Reply

  8. George,
    In your first several posts you said:
    “religion-as-divine-revelation is absolute, insofar as God is making himself comprehensible to us.”

    What is exactly is meant here by absolute? That this revelation hasn’t changed or adapted over time? That God’s revelation to man was and is a static thing?

    Or do you mean that when God decides to reveal himself to man that revelation is always true even if it is a shift or even a subversion of a previously absolute revelation?

    Or what do you mean?

    It seems to me that whether or not you prefer
    “Humans using the cultural tools available to them to make sense of divine actions,”

    or

    “God using the cultural tools available to humans to explain his own actions.”

    that we’re still dealing with a revelation that is culturally relative. The cultural tools of the ancient Hebrews are not mine, etc. Here’s some questions then that follow from that statement: does the content of the revelation change with the cultural tools, or does it stay the same? Can it stay the same? Some messages cannot be translated from one culture to another. Through cultural tools, does God reveal one part of himself to one group of people, while revealing a completely different part of himself to another group with different cultural tools? Would we even be in a position to make valid comparisons between these different revelations, given our impossibly isolated cultural positions and inability to see the “total” picture of who God is?

    Reply

  9. James:

    Let me quote myself in answer to your question about “absolute”: “Whereas religion-as-human-projection is culturally relative because each culture is grasping after the incomprehensible, religion-as-divine-revelation is absolute, insofar as God is making himself comprehensible to us.”

    Perhaps “absolute” wasn’t the best choice of terms, although it seems to be the best antonym to “relative.” Let me see if I can give an example. If religion is relative to culture, when the culture changes, the religion changes. If religion is absolute because of divine revelation, then the culture can change but the religion does not. An absolute revelation is transcultural and transhistorical.

    Which brings us to your second set of questions. I believe that God uses anthropomorphic language to reveal himself to humanity. He uses the language we speak, in other words. He deigns to lisp, as Calvin somewhere put it. Anthropomorphic language is culturally relative. Ancient Hebrews did not have words for airplanes, computers, and koalas. Concubinage, levirate marriage, and anti-usury laws are alien to a modern Western mindset. That doesn’t mean we cannot understand and translate concepts and practices from one culture to another, however.

    You ask: “does the content of the revelation change with the cultural tools, or does it stay the same?” The words change, but the concepts underlying the words can be translated.

    You state: “Some messages cannot be translated from one culture to another.” Name one. If you can name one, then it cannot be untranslatable. If you cannot name one, then perhaps nontranslatable messages don’t exist. I’ll grant that we can’t always get the nuances, but I think we can understand the gist.

    You ask: “Through cultural tools, does God reveal one part of himself to one group of people, while revealing a completely different part of himself to another group with different cultural tools? Would we even be in a position to make valid comparisons between these different revelations, given our impossibly isolated cultural positions and inability to see the “total” picture of who God is?” For the sake of argument, I’ll grant an affirmative answer to the first question. (In reality, I think the answer is no, but whatever.) How do you know we’re stuck in “impossibly isolated cultural positions”? You seem to know enough about ancient Hebrews, for example, to know that they were different than us. In what sense are you “impossibly isolated” from them?

    George

    Reply

  10. George,

    Thank you for your continued clarification. I appreciate you tolerating my slowness.

    You wrote:

    “The question then becomes why I should accept someone’s theory about religion when it doesn’t match my own. Presumably there are some criteria that can help people decide between competing theories–the laws of logic, for example, which don’t seem particularly popular on this site. Or historical criteria. Or moral criteria, which seem to be Jeremy’s preferred ones, based on his citation of “compassion.””

    So, where in your logical critique of systems, which do not complement your own, do ad hominem arguments fit in? I remember reading about those, but I apparently had forgotten that they were tenable logical arguments. In fact, I am also wondering when an individual becomes the arbiter of the relative quality of truth claims. Your post has me most excited about the potential for the possession of truth. Again, you deny setting a trap, fine – you are at least positioning yourself as the representative of the conventional wisdom or the theories held by the status quo, are you not? Why else would the burden of proof fall to your opponents, if your opinion was not the commonly held belief that is? I am most excited to find out where I can go to finally take ownership of Truth, lend me some directions please.

    Oh, one last one, how long does it take a modernist to get frustrated arguing with a post-modernist (or a post-post-modernist, have we come up with that title yet?)?

    Blessings,
    Shawn

    p.s. George, I am presuming that there is an element of playful, if not mischievous, dissent in your posts (as most blogging is prone to contain), if I am in danger of offending you, I’d like to know.

    Reply

  11. Shawn:

    I’m not setting myself up as a neutral arbiter between theories of religion. I’m not neutral; I’m an advocate of Christian exclusivism. And I’m not sure there’s any such thing as a neutral arbiter since both pluralist and exclusivist accounts of religion are so theory laden.

    For me, logic functions as a possible defeater for any theory of religion, since presumably any theory strives to be rational at best or at least not self-referentially absurd. But there may be other grounds for accepting or rejecting either theory, such as: (a) if a religion is historically grounded, then if it’s sacred texts describe a history that did not in fact happen, then it’s hard to imagine in what sense that religion has adequate grounding. (b) if a religion’s essential doctrines, properly interpreted, contradict an assured result of science, that may be a defeater. (c) if a religion’s essential doctrines, properly interpreted, are falsified by human experience, that may be a defeater. For example, if some forms of Wesleyan Holiness theology teach that entire sanctification is possible in this life, and if no one actually experiences entire sanctification, that may be a defeater of the doctrine.

    If exclusivists and pluralists can come to an agreement about criteria they would use to judge between their respective theories, then that would give Jeremy and I a way to adjudicate our differences. It’s in that context that I’m asking Jeremy to explain why a non-pluralist should accept a pluralist theory of religion. Are there criteria that make sense both to him and to me that could potentially help persuade either him or me to change our minds.

    If I were posting on exclusivism, he would be asking me the same questions. I assume he’s going to give persuasive reasons for being a pluralist in his next two posts.

    As for the role of ad hominem arguments, I’m not sure why you’re asking this question. Ad hominem arguments can indeed raise legitimate questions about a person’s argument. If, for example, I’m receiving a million dollars to counteract pluralist arguments on this website, it’s permissible to ask whether my arguments are authentic or just paid for. On the other hand, such ad hominem questions do not automatically defeat my exclusivist arguments. Perhaps I’m being paid a million dollars precisely because I’m such an effective exponent of exclusivism. For the record, I’m not receiving a million dollars…yet.

    Who bears the burden of proof in this argument? Whoever wants to persuade the other person of the truthfulness of his position. Since Jeremy’s trying to persuade us that pluralism is better than exclusivism, he bears the burden of proof. If I were trying to persuade him of the truth of exclusivism, I would bear the burden of proof.

    In your last question, are you assuming I’m a modernist? If so, why?

    George

    P.S. I’m pretty hard to offend.

    Reply

  12. Ah, George we are engaged in an interesting cycle aren’t we. You say something about absolute truth or make an absolute statement, etc., and I dissent, and back and forth we go. It all comes down to epistemology every time.

    I freely admit that I don’t *know* nor can I empirically *prove* that there are things from other cultures that cannot be translated into my own. I don’t *know* this anymore (or less) than I *know* anything. However, I deeply suspect this to be true.

    I suspect that there are some cultural missing links in the story of Jacob wrestling with God. Is it borrowing from an older myth? How (without doing amazing feats of modernist exegetical acrobatics) can you reconcile a man defeating a god in battle with evangelical doctrines about the attributes of God? There are simply mysteries about this text that you or I are not going to understand. And maybe not knowing is half the battle.

    I suspect that there are cultural missing links in the book of Revelation. I mean either we still don’t understand a lot of the stuff going on in Revelation and what it meant to the original author and what it meant to the original audience, or John Hagee, Pat Robertson, and Tim LaHaye are right. (I know this is an ad hominem attack and all, but if anyone ever deserved it…) I am sorry, but I’ll take the there’s-just-some-things-we-don’t-know-for-sure stance over the crazy- fundamentalist-John-the-revelator-(who must invariably be John the Apostle since his name is John)-foresaw-everything-that-is-happening-in-the-present-day -just-as-if-God-had-given-him-direct-access-to-FOX-news (God’s personal choice)-on-the-isle-of-Patmos-so-repent-homosexuals-and-let-Israel-bomb-however-many-Palestenian-Christians-as-they-want-cuz-Jesus-is-coming-back-to-go-all-white-horse-and-flaming-sword-on-your-ass stance any day of the week.

    See, George, I have evidence–glitches in the matrix, if you will–which lead me to suspect that some messages can’t be translated from one culture to another (or at the very least haven’t yet, but things aren’t looking good), but I can’t *prove* it.

    The presupposition I have in these posts is a theory which is one of the many streams of thought that have contributed to what might be called the post-modern revolution in the world of literary criticism. The theory that I speak of is sometimes called translation theory. The seminal text of this theory is George Steiner’s After Babel (Oxford Univ. Press, 1975). Steiner argues that all communication is an act of translation, and that original meaning is always lost because we cannot translate anything without having it altered by our own context. This applies to a woman talking to a man, a child to a parent, or an ancient Hebrew talking to another ancient Hebrew which is then subsequently read by myself thousands of years later. Now, can I prove translation theory? Of course, not. But it is just as viable as the theory (and don’t kid yourself, it’s a theory) that revelation is trans-historical and trans-cultural. If my theory is correct then it is perfectly possible and even likely that we are so blind to our own isolation that we could believe we were not. The point–and really the only major point of disagreement that we have ever had on this blog–is that we don’t *know* either way. You’re theory could be correct, but there’s as little *proof* of it as there is of mine, although I’m sure you have some evidence. Ultimately, you believe revelation is trans-historical and trans-cultural because it makes sense to you, not because you *know* it. And I’m okay with that.

    Reply

  13. Yes, our conversations do seem to keep devolving onto epistemology. You seem to be extremely skeptical about the possibility of knowledge; I less so. For me it is always ironic to read sentences such as these (your summary of Steiner and what I take to be your own belief): “all communication is an act of translation, and that original meaning is always lost because we cannot translate anything without having it altered by our own context.” Okay, fine. But if Steiner is right, then his communication to you of the truth of the translation theory passes along enough of his “original meaning” for you to get his point, even if you don’t get it entirely. Or, to put it differently, we may lose “original meaning” at the margins, but we don’t lose it entirely. If we did, there would be no communication at all.

    One other ironic thing: You seem to “know” that I don’t “know” what I think I “know,” but I have no idea how you “know” it.

    Reply

  14. One other thing: I think the “evidence” but not “proof” formulation is a pretty good one for much of what we “know.” I do think there are killer defeaters, such as the self-referential absurdity of logical positivism’s verification criteria, but those kinds of mistakes in philosophy are pretty rare. Interestingly, you take “evidence, but not proof” in a skeptical direction whereas I take it in a believing direction.

    Reply

  15. It’s always interesting to be able to map out one’s differences with another. On your point about Steiner trying to communicate with me, I essentially agree. Luckily, despite being from a different generation, we still participate in the same culture–he’s a white American male–which makes communication easier than cross-cultural communication (although, one thing this blog certainly illustrates is that cross-generational communication is difficult enough). The point is when it comes to Scripture, how do we *know* that original intent just gets lost on the margins, how can we tell if we’ve totally missed the point? To some degree we cannot *know* all we can do is believe. I’m glad you like for the most part my differentiation between evidence and proof. The other distinction I think we need to make clear is the one between belief and knowledge. I believe that the gospel message is present in Scripture, but I do not know it. Faith is believing in something you can’t prove and therefore do not know. Maybe, in some weird Kierkegaardian sense, one must be a skeptic in order to truly believe?

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  16. James:

    How do you “know” that intracultural communication is easier than intercultural communication? Indeed, how do you know that meaning gets lost in translation, whether at the margins or along the center? The problem with skepticism is that as soon as you formulate it in universal terms, it becomes a universal acid corroding everything it’s poured upon.

    I agree with the distinction between belief and knowledge. Knowledge is a subspecies of belief. Specifically, it is justified true belief.

    I disagree with your definition of faith. To be a bit snarky, how do you know that “faith is believing something you can’t prove”? More seriously, isn’t it possible for there to be an eschatological verification of faith, to borrow Wolfhart Pannenberg’s term? That is to say, I believe (have faith) in Christ’s second coming. When he returns, I will know that he has returned. My faith will have been replaced by sight. Indeed, if one pushes into the past, didn’t the apostles know that Jesus had resurrected from the dead? Wasn’t it proven to them by him in various appearances? Perhaps part of faith is believing in Jesus on the basis of knowledgeable eyewitness accounts.

    George

    Reply

  17. Let me restate the same epistemological point that I have made already in the context of your most recent statements: a) the disciples couldn’t know for sure that what they were experiencing in appearance of the risen Savior wasn’t some sort of hallucination, nor could they *prove* that their surroundings, other people, etc. existed outside of their own minds. Maybe they (and we) were just brains in a vat imagining all this. (I know it’s rated R, but haven’t you seen the Matrix? Surely you’ve read about Plato’s cave? I’ve got a funny story about illicitly going to see the Matrix movies at NCU and seeing all sorts of faculty and staff in the theater, but I digress.) b) we cannot know that what the disciples knew or purportedly knew was truth, because 1) refer to a) and apply all that to us, and 2) we’re weren’t there, and therefore cannot prove anything about it in a scientific or empirical sense.

    All that said, I *believe* that the disciples were eyewitnesses and I believe in the truth of the Resurrection. And that belief—not based on proof, but on evidence (and probably to some degree on sociological reasons)—has transformed my life in ways that can’t be described in any empirical sense.

    Of course, maybe you would argue that the original meaning of Hebrews 11:1 has been lost in translation: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.” (NRSV)

    Regarding whether or not I *know* whether intercultural communication is harder than intra-cultural communication, of course I don’t know. It just seems to be the case. Would you like to disagree? Perhaps you find ancient Sumerian culture easier to decipher than the rambunctious peregrinations of the “post-mod” generation?

    Or maybe you would argue that due to your and Pannenberg’s superior trans-cultural, trans-historical understanding of the gospels that when Jesus tells Thomas that those who believed in the Resurrection without seeing are blessed (John 20:29), that what he really meant was that those who could prove or who *knew* that he was Resurrected from the dead would be blessed.

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  18. This is a fascinating post. For the most part, I think I agree with his observations but I’ll have to read it back through as I’m on my way to work here shortly.

    Quickly though, I myself toyed with the notion of converting to Eastern Orthodoxy for about month and was on the verge of doing my M.A. at a Catholic Seminary here in St. Paul. Ultimately, I couldn’t come to peace with the rampant ethnocentrism and felt one shouldn’t need to be an Eastern Christian in order to participate in Eucharist, which is why I found myself in the next closest thing I could find — Anglican.

    I agree that the American Evangelical Church will eventually collapse under the weight of its own consumerism and what we’ll have left are the Pentecostals and the transplants from Africa, Eastern Asia, and South America.

    I have a tentative interest in the Emerging Church. On the one hand, I feel we have a lot of the same concerns (as we’re all heirs to the Evangelical Machine) but in the end I think the emergers suffer from the same plague that poisons all protestants: separatism. Too many Emergents have made it their goal to villianize the rest of the body of Christ, and start all over attempting to mimic what they would call “the Early Church.”

    While attractive, this notion is ultimately impossible and probably damaging. I think most true emergers will eventually find themselves in an Apostolic tradition, the rest will probably continue in some sort of “Emergent Conversation unDenomination” which will basically just be contemporary Evangelicalism marketed to young people with a bit of Emergent flair.

    Of course, mainline Protestant churches are dying just as fast as their Evangelical counterparts in America, so really is there any hope for any of us or will we just have to wait for the third world to liberate us from consumerism, bickering, and the rampant secularism masquerading as Christianity?

    Sometimes I feel I’m just trying to decide if I should stand in the bow or the stern of our sinking ship.

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