The Evolution of Religion: Toward Religious Pluralism: Part 2

Jeremy Sig

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

Part 2: Definitions

cwupdateIn my last post I laid out a brief history of religious thought. The purpose of doing so was to show that religious thought is an ever evolving process. I also wanted to show that there can be seen broad trends in the way that religious thought evolves. More specifically, I wanted to show that the evolution of religious thought is reactionary to the culture at large. I believe it is best to see religion as an aspect of culture rather than transcendent of culture.

In this second post I would like to expound on the argument by giving shape to the definition of religion. Furthermore, I would like to discuss the terms “pluralism” and “exclusivism” in a more detailed and nuanced way. Before, one can move to the discussion of religious pluralism vs. religious exclusivism, there must be a consensus as to what definition of religion will be used. It is a common mistake to assume that ones working definition of religion is universal. There are, however, many different ways from which to approach a definition of religion. Most broadly, religion can be categorized as anything which is a wisdom tradition. In other words, anything which seeks to instruct mankind on how to live while simultaneously attempting to give a purpose to life. By this definition any philosophical perspective can be seen as religious. This, of course, would include anti-religious movements such as atheism and agnosticism.

The Definition of Religion
While there is no doubt that being a wisdom tradition is vital to every religion, there seems to me far more to religion than simply wise instruction. Thus, I believe, it is necessary to define more narrowly what one means when they speak of religion. The definition of religion which I will use for the premise of this discussion is one given by my favorite author Marcus Borg. Borg argues for a six fold definition of religion. Each of the six aspects are broadly accepted by experts in the field of religious studies. In this post I will list each of the six aspects of religion and discuss each briefly.

1. Ancient Wisdom
The first aspect, which I have already mentioned, is wisdom. Every religion seeks to impart wisdom of how to live and why the way we live is important. Each religious tradition has nuanced aspects of wisdom for life. None the less many of them teach very similar things. The often pointed to aspect of moral teaching applies here. While every religion has a somewhat different definition of what exactly it is to be moral, all of them agree that morality is important.

2. The Intersection of Culture and Language
The second aspect of religion that Borg points out is that religions are cultural-linguistic traditions. Put more simply, every religion is a product of a culture and a language. Islam is a shining example of this in the sense that much of the tradition is linked to the Arab culture and language. It is, however, important to point out that any religion which lasts for an extended period of time will eventually become its own cultural-linguistic tradition. This, of course, is prevalent in the culture and language of Christianity which cannot be ascribed to a single ethnic culture or language.

3. A Human Creation
The third aspect of religion is that it is a human product or creation. This self explanatory point is quite controversial. As is seen by the responses to my last post, most religions cannot agree on this. In fact it is also a common trait of religions to deny human authorship and ground their tradition in divine creation. This fact, however, seems to disprove that notion if for no other reason than every religion, at some point, has claimed to be divinely produced. Many see this point as somehow degrading to religion. After all, if religion is a human construction then how can it have authority? The reality, however, is that authority is something which is given by humanity. Also, it is important to understand that accepting the human production of religion does not remove the role of God from the equation.

4. A Response to the Experience of God
The third aspect of human production must also be understood in light of the fourth aspect which is that religion is a response to the experience of God. It is not enough to simply say that religions are human creations. It is obvious that religion is an inherent aspect of humanity. The very fact that the majority of mankind affirms some form of religion means that it must be in response to something. Religious scholar William James put it this way, “religion says that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in rightful relations to it”. It is in the response to “the more”, as William James coined it, that the language of religion finds its meaning. Thus it is in the experience of the unfathomable God that humans find the need to create some form of response.

5. Means of Transformation
The fifth aspect of religion is that it is a means of ultimate transformation. There are two aspects to this which must be understood. The first is that religion affirms the need to be transformed. No religion desires for people to remain the way they are. If this were the case there would be no need for religion. Rather, every religion affirms that there is a correct response to the experience of God and that response requires a form of ultimate transformation. The second aspect is that religion is a means not an end. Religion is the tool that is used to bring about the end desired, which is transformation. Interestingly, most religions affirm that compassion is one of the core fruits of transformation.

6. The Mediator between God and man
The sixth and final aspect of religion is that it is a sacrament of God. In other words, religion serves as a mediator between God and man. This again affirms the divine authority which religion holds. God is mediated to man through the sacrament of religion. Again, another interesting comparison is that most religions incorporate the sacraments of prayer and meditation, in some form, as aspects of mediating God.

Using this six fold definition of religion, I now move onto the discussion fo pluralism and exclusivism. Before I do, however, I would like to make one quick point about God that will be expounded upon in my last post. One thing that people often get hung up on, when discussing the comparison of religions, is that there is no universal definition of God. In fact, some religions like Buddhism refuse to even speak of God. I offer that the reason for this ambiguity about God, the transcendent, the sacred, the divine, or whatever you want to call it, is that the experience of this reality is beyond human conception.

The Nuances of Pluralism and Exclusivism
Moving onto the discussion of pluralism, it is important to understand, when speaking of the divide between pluralists and exclusivists, that there are many definitions that can be applied to both. Speaking of pluralism, there are two aspects for which it is vital to understand the distinction. Broadly, pluralism is simply a fact of the modern world. To say that we live in a world in which there are a plurality of religions is not a theory but a fact. More importantly, as the world has become smaller, because of human innovation, these religions have been forced to interact with each other. This interaction has created a multiplicity of responses. However, all of these responses can be divided into two ideologies. Those ideologies are “pluralism” and “exclusivism”. Thus in one sense both “pluralism” and “exclusivism” are ideologies which can be directly attributed to culture, be it modern or post-modern. Broadly, of course, the reality of pluralism and exclusivism have coexisted for much longer. For thousands of years there have been a plurality of religious expressions. Likewise, for much of that time religious ideologies have been seen in an exclusive light.

This distinction is important in moving forward. It must be understood that when one is dealing with the specific ideologies of “pluralism” and “exclusivism” that they are dealing with religious reactions to the circumstances of culture. More importantly it is necessary to understand that neither position argues from a place of normativity. This is a mistake that is often made on both sides of the aisle. While broadly it is obvious that each religion is founded in the heart of one of these ideologies, that is not to say that any religion is inherently “exclusivist” or “pluralist” by modern definition.

The Onset of the Enlightenment
Having clarified the inherent nuances of this debate between “pluralism” and “exclusivism”, it is now possible to move onto an understanding of the value that each of these ideologies has had for religious thought. As was previously expressed, the innovations of modernity removed the distances, both geographically and informationally, between the religions of the world. This removal of barriers caused each religion to evaluate itself in a new light. Previous to the enlightenment, religious diversity was seen as simply an ethnic issue. The Chinese had their religions, and the French had theirs (sort of), and the Germans theirs, etc. While there was still an egocentric aspect to religious life, it was seen very differently. One might affirm that their own religion was better than another, but this was seen as a comparisons of culture.

However, with the enlightenment came the creation of the terms scientific method and empirical data. Suddenly, religion was forced to prove its validity in the arena of empirical proof. This new attack, from culture, created the need for religion to answer to the questions of science. The inherent mythological truth of religion was seen as invalid. Because of this shift in the language of truth, religion began to change its definition of God. God could no longer simply be mystically experienced. Those experiences must be proven to be true. This created the language of absolute truth. If religious experience must be proven to be true, then counter experiences must be proven to be false. This dynamic completely changed the way religions saw each other. They were now competing for one truth and this left no room for variances. A side note, it is no coincidence that during the modern period there was more splintering from within each of the religions than any other time in history.

Under this new attack came the need for religions to defend their exclusive claim to truth. Thus, the modern ideology of exclusivism was born. It was no longer a question of superiority but one of exclusivity. Exclusivism allowed for each religion to remain valid in a time when culture was determined to move them to the periphery. It also allowed them to incorporate some of the critiques of modernism without losing validity. Things like racism and bigotry, which were normative when religion was seen as an ethnic locality, were now seen in a more logical light. Things like black skin were no longer seen in the mythological light of a divine curse, but rather seen in light of the scientific explanation of melatonin. This cleansing, in many ways, allowed each religion to remove the mythological hurdles which had hindered them from expressing their core values such as compassion.

Much the same way that modernism created the ideology of exclusivism, post-modernity has begun to create the ideology of pluralism. Post-modernism has reintroduced the value of mythical truth to the world of religion. With this introduction came the removal of the logical imperative of faith. Religions have begun to be freed from the competition for truth. This has created, yet another way for religions to understand each other. No longer are they hindered by the need for superiority that pre-modern culture required. Nor are they hindered by the need for exclusivity that modern culture required. Instead, they are free to validate the unique experiences of other religions while still holding to the value of their own. Thus;

the debate between pluralism and exclusivism is not one of validity. Rather, the debate is one of relevancy.

I believe that the push for religious dialogue has shown that a pluralistic approach to religion is far more valid in today’s culture than an exclusivistic one.

In my final post, for this series, I will look to better define a way forward. There are many hurdles which modernism has left in its wake. While culture has been moving in a post-modern direction for some time, the religious world is lagging behind in many ways. In fact some of the worlds religions are still dealing with the issues surrounding modernity. I will attempt to show that there remains value in both factual truth and mythological truth. Furthermore, it is only in the merging of both that religion will find its relevant voice in today’s culture.

Continue on to Part III

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33 Comments

  1. Jeremy:

    I don’t agree with your linking of modernity and exclusivism. When the 8th-Century Hebrew prophets attacked idolatry, they didn’t say: “Yahwism is superior to Baalism.” They instead argued that “Yahweh is real and Baal is a piece of wood carved by human hands.” How does your linking of modernity and exclusivity account for this pre-modern exclusivism?

    Second, I continue to stand by a point I have made repeatedly in our exchanges that pluralism is a covert form of exclusivism. How so? In order for pluralism’s claims about religions as mythical constructs to work, they must delegitimate traditional religious claims to literal truth and exclusivity. For example: When Islam teaches, “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet,” the pluralist must debunk this claim as literally true. Why? Because understood literally (or as Muslims have understood it since the 7th Century), this fundamental tenet of Islam invalidates not merely polytheistic religions (such as Hinduism) but also monotheistic religions whose prophets disagree with Muhammad (such as Judaism and Christianity). In other words, for pluralism to work, it must take claims traditionally understood to be literally true and instead argue that they are literally false. Then, it must take those literally false claims and invest them with mythically true content, thus changing the nature of the claim as traditionally understood. This is not pluralistic, in my opinion. It is the exclusivism of a mythological understanding of religion.

    That brings us to your definition of religion, which assumes what it should prove: namely, that religion is a (merely human) mythical construct in response to some (incomprehensible) experience of transcendence, rather than a divine revelation (as at least Judaism, Christianity, and Islam define themselves). Now, your definition of religion may be the correct one, but if it is, it is by declaring traditional understandings of religion to be literally false. Again, that’s not particularly pluralistic.

    Against the notion that religion is the result of divine revelation, you offer this argument: “In fact it is also a common trait of religions to deny human authorship and ground their tradition in divine creation. This fact, however, seems to disprove that notion if for no other reason than every religion, at some point, has claimed to be divinely produced.” In other words, if I may restate the argument, the multiplicity of answers proves that there is no one answer. That doesn’t work, though does it? Consider this counter-example: There are a multiplicity of understandings of the nature of religion: divine revelation, human construct, some hybrid of the two, etc. Therefore, one understanding of religion cannot be correct. Of course, you don’t believe that since you don’t believe that religion is divinely revealed. But what precisely is the difference in logical form between your argument and mine? If your argument from the multiplicity of claims to divine revelation invalidates the notion of religion as divine revelation, then doesn’t the multiplicity of understandings of the nature of religion invalidate your claim to have the correct understanding or religion?

    One other point that I have made before about the relationship of culture to religion seems germane here. It seems to me that you believe religion has a “reactionary” relationship to culture. So, if the culture changes, so does the religion. In pre-modern cultures, religions were superior. In modern culture, religions were exclusive. In post-modern culture, they are pluralistic. If I understand you correctly, then, during the Enlightenment, Christians were right to speak of their religion in exclusivist terms, because their culture permitted it; whereas in the post-modern age, this is incorrect, because the culture forbids it. Have I understood you correctly here? If I have, two implications follow: (1) If the culture ever switches back to a modernist footing, you will be compelled to speak of Christianity in exlcusivist terms, which I can’t imagine you ever doing. (2) How do you determine what is normative culturally at any given time. You seem to assume that post-modern relativism (or perhaps pluralism is the better term) is normative now, and while that may be true in some liberal arts faculties, I doubt it’s true in hard science faculties, the Red States, and vast swaths of the Muslim world. So why should post-modern relativism be true for them, since that’s not reflective of their culture?

    I have tried to make an effort to understand you correctly here, so I would appreciate your clarification on points if I have misinterpreted you.

    George

    Reply

  2. To George.

    I disagree with your point: “When the 8th-Century Hebrew prophets attacked idolatry, they didn’t say: “Yahwism is superior to Baalism.” They instead argued that “Yahweh is real and Baal is a piece of wood carved by human hands.” ”

    I searched for any phrase similar to either of those in the story of the prophets of Baal (maybe you’re getting this from somewhere else?). You’re right that the one doesn’t appear, but the other that you suggest doesn’t appear either.

    This is what I find in I Kings:

    ‘ “Shout louder!” he said. “Surely he is a god! Perhaps he is deep in thought, or busy, or traveling. Maybe he is sleeping and must be awakened.” ‘

    Sure, he’s making fun of them, but that’s not my point. My point is you can’t build an argument by hastily summing up a verse to say what you think it *should* say or *might* mean. It is what it is.

    Interestingly, you could have made a perfectly cogent point by using the actual verse rather than putting words in Elijah’s mouth. Of course that’s neither here nor there, a lot of what the Bible ‘means’ to different people has nothing to do with what’s written in it. But I digress.

    I also disagree with your final point, debunking religion as a response to culture. First of all, it would be strange to imagine culture moving backwards, which is exactly what would need to happen for modernity to become the prevalent paradigm once again. There are cultures that have not reached modernity yet, and it is perfectly logical to assume that there will be a fundamentalist movement in due time as these groups of people develop.

    Moving forward: Exclusivism, in my mind at least, should not be thought of as a ‘right’ response to culture, only the best response available to these various religions in order for them to maintain a sense of relevance.

    Now you’re right, there are many places where progress is slower and thus culture deems exclusivism or some even older (culturally speaking) ideology about religion as normative. There are still tribal communities in many countries, and to them their religion is right and good and the best they have available.

    But the thing about knowledge and progress is that it gives us a better lens with which to view and review what we know or what we have always accepted as normative.

    At one point it was a perfectly normative Christian position to see the world as flat, and heretics who disagreed were punished. Knowledge and scientific understanding has allowed us to move past that. Why are we so quick to assume that now we have it right and it’s final?

    The one thing I am always surprised that, for instance, a denomination like the AG has trouble admitting (to randomly grab denomination, no offense to any of you AGers out there, I went to an AG school, too) ; is their denial of any other way of looking at scripture but their own. Don’t they realize that they weren’t even around two hundred years ago? At one point they were brand new and different and strange and … well, they still can be strange at times…

    My point is that a fundamentalist view from the paradigm of a denomination that is only about a hundred years old but that is based on a faith that is around two thousand years old is intellectually remiss. So, in 1904 people finally got it right and even though so many of the positions of the AG wouldn’t have made sense for the last couple thousand years? But now we have it right and we’re done?

    Are we really capable of being so arrogant as to suggest that no one’s had it right for 2,000 years, that is, until we came along and figured it all out.

    Honestly, we’re only right until someone finally beats us down and proves us wrong, then we change. It’s been this way with religion for centuries. Why can’t religion be at the forefront of that change rather than reacting to it ten years behind the trends, splashing about in the wake?

    I certainly hope that culture continues to progress so that the ideas that we see as new and exciting today will seem archaic in light of an even better iteration and understanding of the world around us and the way it is connected to God.

    To Jeremy:

    I’ve been writing too long for tonight, so I’ll respond to you in a bit. Don’t think you’re getting off the hook that easily!

    Reply

  3. ADJ:

    I was thinking specifically of Isaiah 44:9-20, which–you’re right–does not mention Baal explicitly. Sorry for the confusion. But that passage (Isaiah, that is) still establishes my point, namely, that pre-modern prophets thought not merely in terms of superiority but in terms of exclusivity.

    You seem to have missed by point about the relationship of religion and culture. In Jeremy’s view, religion is reactionary to culture. (Why not culture to religion? But that’s a question for another day.) I was trying to point out the weird consequences for Jeremy of saying that religion ought to follow cultural trends, namely, that if religion shifted toward a more modernist/exclusivist paradigm, Jeremy’s point of view would have to shift too. It’s a reductio argument, which I’m sure Jeremy will reject. What I want to know is on what grounds.

    Could modernism actually make a comeback? Sure, why not? We actually see this in the trend toward scientism among many of the leading atheists, where science is the only reliable method for attaining knowledge. That’s about as modernist an epistemological project as it’s possible to get.

    You think it’s strange of me to think of culture moving backward. Why? Progress (and how exactly do you define that? In terms of scientific advancement?) is not inevitable. The height of Greco-Roman culture gave way to the Dark Ages. The most cultured nation in Europe (Germany) gave us the Holocaust. Why assume that progress is inevitable or that culture can’t take one step forward and three steps back?

    “Why are we so quick to assume that now we have it right and it’s final?” Good question. Why are you so quick to assume that exclusivism is false? Perhaps some event in the future will prove the exclusive truth of a particular religion, say Christianity.

    I think you’re right about the necessity of doctrinal humility, especially when it comes to interpretations of Scripture that are novel or of recent vintage. However, I’m not sure that you want to stand too closely by this statement: “Are we really capable of being so arrogant as to suggest that no one’s had it right for 2,000 years, that is, until we came along and figured it all out.” Uh, yes. Two thousand years ago, no one had heard of the germ theory of disease, biological evolution, the Big Bang, lasers, microchips, telephony, automobiles, etc., etc., etc. Isn’t it just possible that we actually know things that the ancients didn’t?

    George

    Reply

  4. I appreciated your post, especially having Borg’s definition laid out so easily and accessible. Thanks for that.

    Could I suggest Paul Knitter’s Introducing Theologies of Religions and S. Mark Heim’s Salvations. It might be helpful in refining exclusivism and pluralism in even more nuanced ways?

    It complicates the hard-and-fast categories of pluralism and exclusivism.

    For me personally, why I assume exclusivism is wrong is because I have experienced God in ways not generally represented in the Christian tradition and by experiencing God within the context of the religious rituals of a nonChristian faith.

    Interreligious dialogue and friendship with others of different faiths makes it difficult to hold fast to exclusivism, for me — not everyone.

    I agree that world religions share much in common; but I would also hesitate not to point out that there is much they do not share in common which is significant and constitutive to their faiths. The danger of exclusivism is that it ignores other religions by dismissing them as false or less than true. The danger of pluralism is that it ignores other religions by flattening their uniqueness to the point that all we see in other religions is a reflection of our own thoughts.

    I just posted on this topic tonight, ironically and saw you had a series going. Enjoying the dialogue. Sorry for the ramble or if I sounded arrogant.

    Reply

  5. To Jeremy:

    My primary critique is that I feel like this series is too compact for it’s own good. I almost feel like I’m still reading the introduction to what you believe, and it seems like these are more like points of reference for your viewpoint rather than points you’re presenting to discuss, which it feels like is still forthcoming.

    In that light, this final post better be awesome.

    j/k

    George:

    I see what you mean in Isaiah, which didn’t immediately come to mind. We were actually discussing Elijah in a study last night, so it was at the ready mentally. I suppose this point of discussion could devolve into a critique of when these accounts may have been written versus when they took place, and how culture may have impacted that, but I think that might get to far from the topic at hand.

    You seem to have missed my (small) point about religion leading culture. 🙂 “Why can’t religion be at the forefront of that change…” If I wasn’t clear, I would agree that religion can and probably should (and hopefully will) once again become a driving force in culture. Personally, I think the pendulum will come back and probably lead us (a little too far) in the direction of new religious enlightenment once again. Then we’ll react, try to find balance, and the cycle will repeat.

    About modernism, that’s a good point. I hadn’t considered from the viewpoint of a scientific mind alone, but personally I would still be surprised if that mentality became as pervasive as it was during the height of modernism. A lot of culture has simply moved past this notion and isn’t looking back. I could see a revival of empirical rationalism, but a lot of things ‘come back’ when the season is right, even bell bottom jeans (God help us all) but a come back is all it usually adds up to. Of course, once again, debating this is fruitless, it will happen or it won’t happen. I won’t be any more right or wrong if it does or does not, I’ll have simply made a good or bad guess.

    But, none of this is to suggest that culture and progress can’t get side tracked or lost. Both the cultural examples you mention illustrate that point well, but I think we can draw a line (hopefully, at least) where progress turned into something else and became destructive.

    This seems like yet another cultural phenomenon. People groups tend to grow in knowledge or philosophy or religion or science, but at some point they (well, we, I suppose) get too big for their own ideas, or too full of themselves and they crash and burn. The Dark Ages and the Holocaust are awful moments in human history. But the progress (to overuse the term) that lead up to them, until the turning point, is still valuable regardless of how things turned out. Think of all the ideas that came out of ancient Greece, political systems and mathematics and poetry and such. Humanity will always push for this, even if we sometimes grasp backwards toward something we were lately more comfortable with simply because it is familiar ground.

    Now, I don’t think you’re suggesting it, but I will still say this: Just because a culture self destructs doesn’t mean it’s advances were all for naught.

    “Why are you so quick to assume that exclusivism is false? Perhaps some event in the future will prove the exclusive truth of a particular religion, say Christianity.”

    My main issue with exclusivism is that even within Christianity there are a great many mutually exclusive interpretations of how a person gets to heaven, or how a person is saved, or whether a person even needs to be saved. Is it water baptism, and if so, at what age, or is it professing a belief in Jesus and inviting him into your heart, and do you have to be filled with the spirit to get into heaven?

    I’m tempted to say, “Once Christianity is back on the same page, once we all agree again….” but then I realize there has always been some amount of division and disagreement. I don’t think this is bad.

    Your final point is a red herring, though. Honestly, I’m a little surprised at how you boil down my statement to mean something far from what we both know I intended.

    Yes, we know things that the ancients didn’t. But you know I’m not talking about germs, or lasers, I’m talking about religion and how we relate to and experience God.

    In that case, I’m all for a simple, elegant answer. That answer doesn’t change, and it points us to God, but the way we act it out in society depends on what needs we recognize in society. This, to me, is how religion moves with culture. Sometimes it’s a reaction, sometimes it’s leading the way, but the essence remains.

    To bring it all around: The essence of exclusivism, in history, leaves a bad taste in our mouths. My way or the highway only works if you’re on the good end of the deal. Sometimes the deciding factors are religion, sometimes race, sometimes gender or even the land a people happens to live in.

    To touch on an area you mentioned earlier, for a Jew in Germany during WWII, they dealt firsthand with a brand of exclusive ideals that had dire consequences. They were nearly wiped out because one man had an idea that he was absolutely right and it was right for him to impose that on society.

    Funny, though, how we read in the Bible, when God successfully wipes out a people group we just say, oh, okay, that’s God. The OT is rife with genocide, but we hardly bat an eye. This gave us the excuse to wipe out people in God’s name at many points in history, because we were right and there was no other way to see it. Do we accept it as normative, then? Is genocide really just a fact of life and religion? Why does everything inside me scream no?

    But that is our church history, no matter how much we try to distance ourselves from it. I guess this is why I tend to reject exclusivism. It seems like it always ends badly and five hundred years later, the church finally admits, okay, so that was bad move… let’s move on.

    In much the same way that culture has the potential to grow, and also to cross the line and self destruct, it seems like religion has the potential to grow but often times it is exclusive ideals that start with good intentions and end with disastrous results.

    Culture may never learn, but I’d like to think we could as a church.

    Now it’s late, I have to turn in.

    Reply

  6. ADJ:

    No, I don’t think my last statement is a red herring. It is a counter-example to draw you out, which it did. If I understand you correctly, you believe that exclusivism in some fields of knowledge (e.g., science) is permissible but not in other fields (e.g., religion). Why? Like science, religion makes truth claims. (It does more than this, of course, but not less.) Truth claims are true or false, whether in science or religion. If true, they are exclusive. So, if religion makes truth claims, and if those claims are in fact true, then they are exclusive of their logical alternatives, as in science.

    I actually believe modernism is more pervasive now than it ever was during the Enlightenment. Why? Because of widespread education. In the Enlightenment, a few intellectual elites promulgated their ideas among a few leadershi elites. Today, a few intellectual elites promulgate their ideas among the masses. Naturalistic accounts of evolution no longer pervade just the biology department, for instance. They pervade discussions of politics, social issues, quality of life issues, ethics, sociology, criminology, mind science, etc. At no point in history have so many people been exposed to a scientistic account of human origins in its full ramifications than they are today.

    George

    Reply

  7. Religion is the subjective acknowledgement that there is a Being superior to us and we are dependent on that Being for our survival.
    The objective side of it is that the individual by their free will acknowledges that dependance through acts of homage to the Being.

    I’ve never been able to break it down any more basic then that.

    Reply

  8. George,

    “No, I don’t think my last statement is a red herring. It is a counter-example to draw you out, which it did. If I understand you correctly, you believe that exclusivism in some fields of knowledge (e.g., science) is permissible but not in other fields (e.g., religion). Why? Like science, religion makes truth claims. (It does more than this, of course, but not less.) Truth claims are true or false, whether in science or religion. If true, they are exclusive. So, if religion makes truth claims, and if those claims are in fact true, then they are exclusive of their logical alternatives, as in science.

    I actually believe modernism is more pervasive now than it ever was during the Enlightenment. Why? Because of widespread education. In the Enlightenment, a few intellectual elites promulgated their ideas among a few leadershi elites. Today, a few intellectual elites promulgate their ideas among the masses. Naturalistic accounts of evolution no longer pervade just the biology department, for instance. They pervade discussions of politics, social issues, quality of life issues, ethics, sociology, criminology, mind science, etc. At no point in history have so many people been exposed to a scientistic account of human origins in its full ramifications than they are today.”

    This is why I call you a modernist, George. :0)

    Are all truth claims either true or false? Can they be true in some situations and false in others? We answer “yes,” and you answer “NO.” So, how long does it take a modernist to get frustrated arguing with post-modernists? lol

    Based on the now famous exchange rate between you and, well let’s see, pretty much all of us. I would say not long.

    I really do enjoy your interaction here. Thanks for sticking with us, and not screaming “anathema” and leaving. Obviously, I cannot speak for Jeremy. :0)

    Shawn

    Reply

  9. Shawn:

    I cited the widespread influence of science not because I’m a modernist but in order to challenge the notion that our culture is post-modern.

    I’m not a modernist under any definition that I can think of. I certainly don’t believe that the scientific method is the only way to know things. Indeed, I’ve been deeply influenced by the “Reformed epistemology” of Plantinga and Wolterstorff who are anti-foundationalists in epistemology, while modernism is typically foundationalist. But whatever.

    Truth claims are either true or false, period. If you add conditions, then they are either true or false under those conditions. For example: “The water drains from a toilet bowl in a clockwise direction.” That is true. Of course, the condition has to be added: north of the equator. South of the equator, it runs the other direction. (Or so I’ve heard. Maybe it’s just an urban myth. Or maybe I’ve got the drainage backward. I’m open to correction on this example.) But once you add the qualifier, the statement is either true or false under those conditions: “The water drains from a toilet bowl in a clockwise direction in the northern hemisphere.” The point of the law of contradiction is that A does not equal -A at the same time and in the same circumstances. Properly qualified, truth statements are exclusively true or false. It’s not modernist to point this out, unless, of course, Aristotle was a modernist.

    Some day, I’ll try to make a case for religious exclusivism on AGThinkTank.com that you guys can pick apart. Then the roles will be reversed and we’ll see if you get as frustrated with me as I do (sometimes) with you.

    George

    Reply

  10. No, George, Aristotle was not a modernist. However, taking categorical, universal truth claims and assuming that you can properly qualify things like what we are discussing here, is modernist. Just because you can place your rationale within an Aristotelian framework does not exempt you from operating within the assumptions of modernism. It would be the difference in deductive syllogisms between a valid argument and a true argument. So, the issue is not whether either modernism or post-modernism utilizes true logic. The issue is whether you genuinely believe that those terms can be qualified. Unless I am mistaken, you do, and I certainly do not.
    Now, one concession I am willing to make, is that the lexical use of modernism within individual disciplines (and post-modernism too, for that matter) is a changing variable. Modernism does not mean exactly the same thing when you are talking about art and literature as it does when you talk about science or theology. You, sir, most certainly are not a religious modernist. However, I am using the term more loosely (as I assume most people do). So, you probably do not fit, in all of your thoughts and beliefs, clearly into any given epoch. I certainly do not feel like I fit into the enlightenment, modernism, or post-modernism completely.

    Reply

  11. oh, and I am not a pluralist either. Just for the record. I am not even sure eastern religions qualify as religions in the same sense that monotheistic religions do.

    Reply

  12. Shawn:

    “However, taking categorical, universal truth claims and assuming that you can properly qualify things like what we are discussing here, is modernist.”

    Huh?

    George

    Reply

  13. :0)

    I am under the impression that it is a modernist approach to believe that you can qualify in a categorical or universal way (in the deductive sense) anything regarding the relationship between metanarratives. In other words, you are saying that a truth statement when properly qualified, the toilet water drains clockwise (Qualification: in the northern hemisphere) is necessarily either true or false. I agree that you can qualify a truth statement about Christianity within the metanarrative of Christianity, but that you cannot qualify such a truth claim outside of that closed system is a contradiction of modernist assumptions – it is a postmodern presupposition. If I understand you correctly, you are saying that truth claims within and about Christianity can be qualified so that they are true outside of its own metanarrative. I disagree.

    Consequently, it is not a desire to find qualifications (and subsequent validation) that I think makes you modernist (that as you have pointed out, is merely logical thinking). I think it is your belief that something like a metanarrative has the ability to be qualified outside of its own “system” that makes your perspective modern in inclination.

    Hence:

    1.) George thinks all Christian Truth claims can be verified outside of the Christian belief system
    2.) It is generally accepted that post-enlightenment thinkers believe that absolute truth is derived within a closed system.
    3.) Therefore, George’s assumption that the properly qualified truth claims within the closed system of Christianity constituting absolute truth resembles post-enlightenment thinking.

    Furthermore

    1.) Post-enlightenment notions of absolute truth more closely resemble modernism than postmodernism.
    2.) George exhibits post-enlightenment notions of absolute truth when constructing his religious truth claims for http://www.theophiliacs.com
    3.) Therefore, for all intents and purposes, George is a modernist thinker commensurate to his posts on http://www.theophiliacs.com

    Reply

  14. George,

    I have been trying to avoid posting on responses to this series for a number of reasons. The biggest is that I have come to realize that for all of our differances we share one characteristic in common. That characteristic is that we are both far too argumentative, and I have given up any dillusion of swaying you with my arguments. That said, I almost choked to death, on my tea, when I read “I’m not a modernist under any definition that I can think of”. Thanks for the good laugh.:)

    Reply

  15. I just coined a new term to described what just happened: syllogowned. As in, “Concerning the matter of whether or not he is a modernist, George just got syllogowned by Shawn.”

    Reply

  16. George…

    Actually, what you’re drawing out does a great disservice to both science and religion. They make a terrible comparison because they are inherently different.

    Science is testable, and scientific truth only comes about through the scientific method. We adjust those findings when new information becomes available, thus our understanding of the natural world grows as our knowledge grows. It is a learning process based on observable facts which progresses alongside technology.

    With religion, people constantly, ad quite easily, come to many different conclusions based on the same scriptures, ideals and traditions. This is not a rational act.

    There is no litmus test for the right religion, or the right ideal, nor a way to be objective when comparing the various religions. It is a human experience, not an empirical science.

    In the same way you appear to insist on religion having absolute truth claims (which, in that sense, must be exclusive) I insist religion make few, if any, truth claims.

    IMO, Religion is man’s best guess at the inconceivable and how to relate to it, nothing more. In this sense, it is similar to science in that it evolves as new ideas and philosophies develop, but at it’s heart, religion is a creative expression while science is an empirical description.

    ***

    To bring it around, then, since you insist on ignoring the damning role exclusive ideals have played in a great many genocides and wars throughout history, consider this instead:

    Have you ever heard of a Buddhist terrorist?

    Of course not. Now why is that idea absurd? Because Buddhists limit their definition of God (they consider it inappropriate) and instead focus on how to get close to this divine being, if he is a ‘being’ the way we understand it, as well as focusing on making their immediate world, their sphere of influence, a better place.

    When compared to Islam, Judaism and Christianity, Buddhism has a fantastic resume when it comes to slaughtering infidels, heretics and sinners. They just don’t do it. It simply isn’t possible to have that frame of mind, that religious experience and justify killing someone, let alone thousands or millions of people.

    While I am not a Buddhist, I have a great respect for their ideals. Historically, then I must be frank when I say that they are a lot closer to ‘getting it’ when it comes to loving their neighbors than we Christians have ever been.

    This is where pluralism, in some form at least, shapes up much better than exclusivism for humanity throughout history.

    Sure, maybe they’re wrong about it all, we could argue that till we’re blue in the face, but they’re not nearly as wrong as we Christians (I admit with a sigh) continue to prove.

    Reply

  17. Shawn:

    Here’s how you summarize my position: “truth claims within and about Christianity can be qualified so that they are true outside of its own metanarrative.” You disagree. Further, you denominate my position as “modernist.”

    For the life of me, I can’t figure out why you think this understanding of truth is a uniquely modernist point of view. I’m pretty sure Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and a host of pre-modern philosophers subscribed to a similar point of view. For me as for them, truth–about religion or any other subject–is not culturally relative or metanarrative-dependent. So why do you persist in tagging me as a modernist? You might as well tag me as a pre-modernist, which would probably be more accurate.

    Of course, there’s a whole other debate as to the adequacy of the notion that truth is metanarrative-dependent. The obvious problem is that if truth is metanarrative-dependent, then the proposition that “truth is metanarrative-dependent” is itself metanarrative-dependent. Since I don’t subscribe to the postmodern narrative, its definition of truth cannot be pinned on me.

    One other problem that I see with your definition of truth is that there’s no way to adjudicate the dispute between atheists and theists as to whether God exists. The atheist metanarrative is naturalistic. The theist metanarrative is supernaturalistic. On your definition of truth, atheism is true for atheists and theism is true for theists, but there’s no way to tell whether atheism is true, requiring theists to give up their theism, or whether theism is true, requiring atheists to give up their atheism. Of course, in the real world, atheists convert to theism, and theists convert to atheism all the time. At a practical level, the fact of conversion from one metanarrative to another seems to indicate the possibility of persuasion across metanarratives.

    I’m sure you’ll say that I have misunderstood you, so I look forward to your clarification.

    George

    Reply

  18. James:

    As for “syllogowned,” it’s a clever word, but Shawn hasn’t come close to owning me with his syllogism.

    In the first syllogism, Premise 1 is incorrect. I’ve never stated that “all” Christian truth claims can be verified outside the Christian system. I imagine some can be and some can’t be. Premise 2 is vague when it’s not statistically unverified. Vague: Post-enlightenment covers a lot of thinkers who don’t agree on the definition of truth. Idealists may believe that “absolute truth is defined within a closed system,” but realists don’t. Consequently, it’s simply false to say that the proposition is “generally accepted.” Premise 3 then weirdly brings the two previous premises together. On the one hand, Premise 1 proposes that I believe truth can be verified “outside” the Christian metanarrative, while Premise 2 says post-Enlightenment thinkers think truth is verified “within” a closed system. In other words, my definition of truth (“outside” a closed system) contradicts the “generally accepted” (ahem) “post-Enlightenment” definition of truth (“within” a closed system). And you consider this compelling from a logical point of view?

    The second syllogism is little better. Premise 1 is either vague or tautologous. Vague because, as pointed out above, there are any number of post-Enlightenment philosophies that don’t agree with one another. Indeed, postmodernism is a post-Enlightenment philosophy. Which leads us to the tautology: Modernist notions of absolute truth more closely resemble modernism than postmodernism. How enlightening!

    I dispute Premise 2 in an earlier comment. The notion of truth as transcultural or non-metanarrative-dependent is true within both pre-modernism as well as some strains of modernism. Which means that my notions of absolute truth may actually be pre-modern. Which means I may be a pre-modern thinker, contra Premise 3.

    Syllogowned? Puhleez.

    George

    Reply

  19. Jeremy:

    You wrote: “I have given up any dillusion of swaying you with my arguments.” That’s one reason for continuing the debate. Another reason is to sharpen your arguments, clarify your points, discard weak arguments for your position in favor of stronger ones, etc.

    I’m still laughing that you guys consider me a modernism. Seriously, have any of you taken a course in the history of philosophy? Or read extensively in the history of philosophy? Maybe Copleston or Kenny? The notion that truth is not culturally relative or metanarrative-dependent is not unique to modernism. It’s pre-modern. Example: the Natural Law tradition stretching from Aristotle to Aquinas teaches that there are moral truths that are absolute and obligatory upon all, regardless of race or religion. Now, Natural Law may be incorrect in its assertion of the existence of these truths. But the fact that Natural Law thinkers made such claims centuries before the modernist period should put to rest the notion that commitment to transcultural, non-metanarrative-dependent truths is modernist.

    George

    Reply

  20. George,

    That’s essentially what I argue in my newest post. Reading Plato and having a philosophy course has not diminished my support – broadly, for post-critical epistemology, but I had to give up the power-base of the post-modern meta-narrative, since it was disingenuous.

    Reply

  21. ADJ:

    Science and religion are different ways of knowing different things. In a sense, science has to do with physics and religion with metaphysics. Or, to put it differently, physics deals with how the world is and metaphysics deals with why the world is and why it is the way it is. Scientists cannot answer the question, “Why is there something rather than nothing.” Religion cannot answer the question, “How does DNA replicate itself?”

    You wrote: “Have you ever heard of a Buddhist terrorist?” Yes. The Sinhala Buddhists in Sri Lanka inciting violence against Christians and Tamils. And the Japanese Buddhist movement Aum Shuriyko, which released sarin gas in a Tokyo subway.

    George

    As for the notion that science can arrive at truth but religion can’t, how do you know that? There are disagreements between scientists (regarding, say, string theory), and there are agreements among religions (regarding, say, the superiority of compassion to violence).

    You wrote, “There is no litmus test for the right religion, or the right ideal, nor a way to be objective when comparing the various religions. It is a human experience, not an empirical science.”

    Let’s take that last sentence first. I agree with it to a certain extent. But while the Christian religion is not an empirical science, it is an historical phenomenon, centered on various happenings. As such, at least some of its claims can be verified or falsified using historical methods. For example, if the Bible says that God ordained Saul to be king, and it can be conclusively proven that Saul never existed, then it is false to make the religious assertion that God ordained Saul king. Now, there may be many truths that cannot be verified in such a manner. The Christian religion makes many different kinds of claims. Some of them may be partially verified in non-metanarrative dependent ways. For example, with the above claim about Saul as king, if it can be historically verified that a man named Saul was in fact king, then the claim that God ordained Saul king is partially verified since at least one aspect of the statement is true (namely, that Saul was king). Can God’s existence be verified by historical method? I don’t know. Perhaps other arguments would need to be employed. And there are probably some Christian claims that are metanarrative-dependent. Of course, I stand by the notion of eschatological verification: If, as the Bible teaches, Jesus will return and reveal himself to all humanity as either its savior or judge, then one day our disputes about the Christian religion will be decisively settled. OF course, that doesn’t help much now, but it is a form of verification (or falsification).

    But let’s go back to the first sentence of yours I quoted above: “There is no litmus test for the right religion, or the right ideal, nor a way to be objective when comparing the various religions.” (a) How do you know this? (b) If it’s true, then you can’t tell me my religious exclusivism is false without assuming that we can be objective about excluvist forms of religion.

    Reply

  22. George,

    I hope you are at least willing to acquiesce the following – if not, I may have to do violence to myself. :0)

    In these posts, none of us is putting our best effort forward, meaning I am not going to spend hours meticulously crafting an argument that will hopefully prove to be unassailable (in fact, being a teacher, many of my posts are constructed during 5 minute passing periods – with the exception of this post which I am doing from home). I know this is almost certainly true of you and the others, seeing that we are probably all gainfully employed.

    Having said that, this is entertainment for me – and presumably for all of you as well, as my day/life cannot bear the burden of “serious” debate (read “drama”), right now.

    With all of the aforementioned in mind, I rely on you and others to offer the benefit of the doubt regarding vague notions, poorly worded propositions, or assumed information. Now, I knew (I KNEW IT) that you would not be able to resist tearing a syllogism apart. Regardless of how carefully I constructed it (reference the above-mentioned statement about passing periods to know that I didn’t), I anticipated you breaking it down phrase by phrase, and I hoped that you would enjoy it. Nonetheless, you have held me hostage to the words I typed, even though you probably could have figured out my intended meaning, and could if you wanted to (which you probably do not and will not) acknowledge the veracity of those claims. In addition, the reason you will not is that the entertainment value in all of this (for you), is making, breaking, and eluding arguments. I totally get it.

    Now, allow me to be clear on what is perhaps one of the only TRULY genuine things I have ever said on the internet.

    I am okay with all of that.

    (Now, back to my standard-disingenuous-internet-self.)

    So, no I don’t say that you have misunderstood me. In fact, you have paid far too close attention to the meaning of what I typed, and not to the heart or meaning behind the imperfect language and imperfect user of that language. You have held me, the author, hostage to the words written. How genuinely fundamentalist of you! :0)

    (Moreover, I might add, it smacks of modernism, too)

    Reply

  23. George,

    Point taken about the Buddhist terrorists (both of them), I’d certainly never heard of them. I guess Buddhism is just another great satan.

    But let’s be honest…. You win. I’m taking Jeremy’s stance on discussion with you.

    It’s obvious you’re perfectly comfortable with taking what anyone says, making it mean what you want (not what they intend), then disassembling it to suit your point of view; while wholly ignoring the perfectly cogent points established.

    Reply

  24. George,

    “I’m still laughing that you guys consider me a modernism. Seriously, have any of you taken a course in the history of philosophy? Or read extensively in the history of philosophy? Maybe Copleston or Kenny? The notion that truth is not culturally relative or metanarrative-dependent is not unique to modernism. It’s pre-modern. Example: the Natural Law tradition stretching from Aristotle to Aquinas teaches that there are moral truths that are absolute and obligatory upon all, regardless of race or religion. Now, Natural Law may be incorrect in its assertion of the existence of these truths. But the fact that Natural Law thinkers made such claims centuries before the modernist period should put to rest the notion that commitment to transcultural, non-metanarrative-dependent truths is modernist.”

    This is like listening to a Texan make argument that he should be only called a Texan and that he shouldn’t be called an American.

    Reply

  25. Shawn:

    Here’s the syllogism you’re trying to make regarding me:

    1. People who believe in absolute truth are modernists.
    2. George believes in absolute truth.
    3. Therefore, George is a modernist.

    This is a valid argument, but not sound, for the simple reason that any number “people who believe in absolute truth” and “modernists” are not mutually exhaustive categories. I simply don’t understand why you and others can’t grasp this simple point.

    I think we can all agree that I believe in absolute truth in religion, meaning truth that is not culturally relative or metanarrative dependent. I wish you guys would clue in that this belief does not make me a modernist.

    Do I take apart your bad arguments merely for entertainment’s sake. No, although it is entertaining. One of the things I’ve discovered is that pastoral work can be boring. Having a blog and being allowed to comment on this blog provides me a measure of intellectual stimulation that I both need and enjoy. On the other hand, I think some of the arguments made on this site are bad arguments. As a person trained in analytical philosophy, I like to analyze. I’ll concede I don’t always do it well and don’t always have truth on my side, but one of the ways I learn is by debate. The more vigorous the debate, the better.

    What is frustrating to me is that all the posters/commenters on this site are obviously very intelligent. But I disagree with much of what some of you say. One of the reasons I often restate your arguments is that I think a clearer expression would show the fallaciousness of the thinking. Of course, for this strategy to work, the restatement has to be true to the original meaning, and that’s where the disagreement often comes in between us.

    Which brings me to ADJ:

    You wrote, “It’s obvious you’re perfectly comfortable with taking what anyone says, making it mean what you want (not what they intend), then disassembling it to suit your point of view; while wholly ignoring the perfectly cogent points established.”

    As stated in the preceding paragraph, I try to restate things in order to show the fallacies involved in a line of argument. If I’ve misstated the meaning, then obviously I should be taken to task. But if I’ve correctly grasped the intended meaning and then shown it to be fallacious, what’s the problem?

    One of the reasons I argue so much on this site is that I don’t think the writers have “established” “perfectly cogent points.” Your statement about there being no religious litmus test for religion or way of being objective when comparing religions is a case in point. The mere fact of disagreement–even persistent disagreement–does not mean that there is no truth in the matter. I don’t see why this is controversial. After all, we have a persistent disagreement, but you still think I’m wrong, right?

    George

    Reply

  26. ADJ:

    One further thought on this statement: “This is where pluralism, in some form at least, shapes up much better than exclusivism for humanity throughout history.” In context, you were talking about how Buddhism was better at loving their neighbors than Christians have been. You may be right, although for the comparison to work, you really need to factor in the actions of Buddhist nations, not merely Buddhist individuals. Have Buddhist nations, like the Kingdom of Nepal, been less belligerent, more religiously tolerant, and more loving of “the Other” than Christian nations? I don’t know, frankly. It’s an empirical question, I suppose. My guess is that Buddhist nations, like the Kingdom of Nepal, will show great variations in terms of violence, religious toleration, and respect toward “the Other,” just as so-called Christian nations have shown.

    I’m just finishing a book by Eberhard Schnabel called Paul the Missionary. It talks about, inter alia, the reaction of Greeks and Romans to Paul’s missionary efforts. While Roman society was quite pluralistic (incorporating the gods of any nations within its own pantheon), it wasn’t necessarily tolerant. Reflecting on this, it seems that we can come up with a fourfold description of the nexus between pluralistic and tolerant: (1) exclusivist and intolerant (Catholic Spain in 1492); (2) exclusivist and tolerant (Roger Williams and the Rhode Island colony, early 17th Century); (3) pluralist and tolerant (Sweden?); and (4) pluralist and intolerant (the Roman Empire at times).

    George

    Reply

  27. George,

    See, that’s all I am getting at, brother. I know that your blogging is not completely fastidious or frivolous. However, there is something deep inside of you that likes picking things apart. I understand, but when I am not sitting across from you at a table – you are not as accountable to hear what I am meaning, only to pick apart what I am saying. And some of this “modernist” line of reasoning with you is a reaction to that (petty? yes – Fun? absolutely)

    For the record: You have never offended me on this, or any blog, but some here get frustrated because they want their imperfect thoughts to stand while they explore the possibility of their existence outside of hard scrutiny. Now, I don’t think I am even equipped to begin pointing out people or instances, but it is a general feeling of frustration that many of these men had with the A/G (or other denominations) and is why they left.

    Crap, this is starting to sound like a lecture or a sermon or something, and I have no place to lecture or sermonize in present company.

    God be with you and bless you

    Reply

  28. Okay George

    I don’t think you’re wrong, per se.

    I think your only concern is being right, and you’ve already decided what ‘right’ is, whereas my primary concern is trying to understand this topic better in order to move forward with more confidence in what I believe.

    A guy like you can prove anything you want. You’re quite good at debate. I’m quite sure you could prove the moon doesn’t exist if you put your mind to it, but that doesn’t help a guy like me.

    Talking to these guys does. It sharpens my thinking, keeps me honest and makes the search enjoyable. Arguing with you doesn’t.

    Quite finally,
    ADJ

    Reply

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