"He is alive"

One of my favorite movies of all time, and one of the best political thrillers ever made, is Z, directed by Costra-Gavras. The movie was nominated for the best picture Oscar for 1969, and won the Academy Award for best foreign language film.

The movie provides a fictionalized account of events in Greece after a peace activist was murdered in the early 1960s. The letter "Z" became a catchword in the film among those who wanted to continue his work after he died. It meant "He is alive".

When his followers expressed this sentiment, they clearly did not mean that he was literally still alive. They meant instead that they honored what he sought to accomplish, and that his spirit carried on in the work of those who came after him.

Perhaps this is similar to what the followers of a certain Jewish mystic 2000 years ago were also saying after he was killed for what he stood for.

John Haught on the resurrection

From an interview in Salon.com:

What do you make of the miracles in the Bible -- most importantly, the Resurrection? Do you think that happened in the literal sense?

I don't think theology is being responsible if it ever takes anything with completely literal understanding. What we have in the New Testament is a story that's trying to awaken us to trust that our lives make sense, that in the end, everything works out for the best. In a pre-scientific age, this is done in a way in which unlettered and scientifically illiterate people can be challenged by this Resurrection. But if you ask me whether a scientific experiment could verify the Resurrection, I would say such an event is entirely too important to be subjected to a method which is devoid of all religious meaning.

So if a camera was at the Resurrection, it would have recorded nothing?

If you had a camera in the upper room when the disciples came together after the death and Resurrection of Jesus, we would not see it. I'm not the only one to say this. Even conservative Catholic theologians say that. Faith means taking the risk of being vulnerable and opening your heart to that which is most important. We trivialize the whole meaning of the Resurrection when we start asking, Is it scientifically verifiable? Science is simply not equipped to deal with the dimensions of purposefulness, love, compassion, forgiveness -- all the feelings and experiences that accompanied the early community's belief that Jesus is still alive. Science is simply not equipped to deal with that. We have to learn to read the universe at different levels. That means we have to overcome literalism not just in the Christian or Jewish or Islamic interpretations of scripture but also in the scientific exploration of the universe. There are levels of depth in the cosmos that science simply cannot reach by itself.

Terry Eagleton on religion

I found this great quote by Terry Eagleton:

“[B]elieving that religion is a botched attempt to explain the world . . . is like seeing ballet as a botched attempt to run for a bus.”

That kind of explains everything, doesn't it?

I ran across an article from last year in the New York Times in which Richard Dawkins derides children's stories that include elements of fantasy or myth:

Richard Dawkins has said that he is now writing a book for children. In an interview with Britain’s Channel 4, Dr. Dawkins said he was working on a book that would explore children’s relationships with fairy tales, and encourage them to think about the world scientifically rather than mythologically. “I would like to know whether there’s any evidence that bringing children up to believe in spells and wizards and magic wands and things turning into other things — it is unscientific, I think it’s anti-scientific."
I guess if you don't see the value of myth for adults, then it is not surprising that you wouldn't see the value of myth for children either.

The "Everyone knows" argument, redux.

I recently commented on some of what atheist blogger Sean Carroll has written about religion, noting that his concept of religion is narrow and mostly defined by Christian orthodoxy. Apparently I am not the only one who called him on this, because last week he wrote another blog entry in which, once again, he attempted to justify his definition of religion. Here is what he wrote:

When I use words like “God” or “religion,” I try to use them in senses that are consistent with how they have been understood (at least in the Western world) through history, by the large majority of contemporary believers, and according to definitions as you would encounter them in a dictionary. It seems clear to me that, by those standards, religious belief typically involves various claims about things that happen in the world — for example, the virgin birth or ultimate resurrection of Jesus. Those claims can be judged by science, and are found wanting.
What I find interesting is that the two examples that he cites--the virgin birth and the "ultimate" resurrection (by which I assume he means a "literal" or "physical" resurrection) of Jesus--both come from Christian orthodoxy. He thus betrays that what is "clear" to him about religion in general is essentially based on one specific class of religious belief, one that he is apparently the most familiar with--and which he then uses to base a generalization about all of religious faith or all conceptions of God. Carroll claims that a basic reference work definition of God or religion matches his own conception, namely one that necessarily involves claims about what happens in the world; it might do Carroll some good to read the Wikipedia article on "Conceptions of God" and then come back and write a blog entry once he has informed himself a bit more on the vast variety of conceptions that fall under that subject. For a scientist, he is remarkably good at throwing around a lot of unsubstantiated pronouncements about what "God" and "religion" supposedly mean to everyone. He goes on to say, for example, that
Most Christians would disagree with the claim that Jesus came about because Joseph and Mary had sex and his sperm fertilized her ovum and things proceeded conventionally from there, or that Jesus didn’t really rise from the dead...
Once again, we see here the "most Christians" argument. If "most" Christians believe something, so the argument goes, then the minority don't get to be included in the definition of Christianity. (And by extension, if most Christians believe in a theistic God, then a theistic and interventionist God is a necessary part of the definition of "religion". ) Since I doubt that he has actually done an opinion poll of what "most" Christians believe, this is just an imprecise assertion that masquerades as an argument. He might actually be surprised at just how many Christians don't believe in the virgin birth. Then again, there is always the possibility of the circular reasoning that says that if they don't believe that, then they aren't even Christians in the first place.

The real question is why any of this matters, and Carroll himself asks this question:
Furthermore, if a religious person really did believe that nothing ever happened in the world that couldn’t be perfectly well explained by ordinary non-religious means, I would think they would expend their argument-energy engaging with the many millions of people who believe that the virgin birth and the resurrection and the promise of an eternal afterlife and the efficacy of intercessory prayer are all actually literally true, rather than with a handful of atheist bloggers with whom they agree about everything that happens in the world.
I really think that Carroll should read a book by John Shelby Spong some time. Many people of faith who reject supernatural theism or an interventionist deity do expend a lot of energy arguing with religious orthodoxy. But it is not a matter of either-or here; if there are more than two sides to an issue, then I will freely argue with both positions that I disagree with. I think the problem here is that I for one feel caught in the middle between Christian orthodoxy and atheism, and it annoys me. Christian orthodoxy annoys me for the obvious reasons, but militant atheism also annoys me because it often shares the same exact assumptions about what religion is or should be that the orthodoxy does. I find myself standing on the sidelines in the arguments between these groups of people, and the problem is that they are both wrong. Sometimes in life, there are more than two sides to an argument, but when an argument is carried out as if certain points of view don't even exist, when those points of view are thus shut out of the debate, one effectively cheats the rest of us out of a chance to really examine the issue from all sides. The reality is that lots of people with a spiritual inclination but who reject supernatural interventionism end up thinking that this is what religion is and join the "church alumni society", when, in reality, that isn't their only option. Not to mention the fact that it ends up being presumptuous and insulting; when someone claims that "everyone knows" what religion or God really is, based on a faulty assumption, what results is a definition that presumes to deny the reality of my own religious belief.

To Sean Carroll I say--sorry, but my religious belief is religious, even if it doesn't fit into your compartmentalized view of things. And that is why I argue with you.

Religion and the absolute

I found an interesting online interview with John Haught. Here is one quote that caught my attention, regarding the relationship between science and religion. I like what he says here because it summarizes what I think captures the meaning and purpose of religion generally; and when he talks about a "sense of the absolute" that transcends religious boundaries, it reminds me of the theology of John Hick:

So something religious is going on even in scientific work, not in the scientific information itself but in the commitment to the idea that the universe is intelligible and truth is worth seeking. Those are religious convictions. You can’t prove scientifically that truth is worth seeking, but it’s the conviction that it is worth seeking that underlies all good science. Religion lifts this up and makes it more explicit. It symbolically names that depth, that truth, that meaning, and refers to it in Western theology as God or Allah, or in Eastern thought as Brahman or Tao. People have always had different names in different cultures for this sense of an absolute that gives significance to their lives. The evidence for this dimension is not the same as scientific evidence, but I would not say that religion is simply a leap into the dark. Something tangibly and palpably grabs hold of religious people. We can call it “mystery” just to give it a general name.

A process way of describing God

From the blog "Aspiration Towards Inspiration" comes this description of what "God" means from a process theology perspective:

When I say God, I mean the panentheistic God of Process Theology… the God that is present in all forms of life yet extends beyond all forms. God is not the all-powerful, all-knowing God that most would define God as. The past is done, the future is not yet… God acts in the now. God has no hands but our hands. I would describe God as the form of ideal Humanity and morality that is present in all forms of Life. God is communicated through acts of compassion and cries for justice and God exists in multiple forms. I believe that God is a both/and God that feels the needs of all peoples and lives in inspiration toward compassionate efforts to alleviate the pains all forms of Life experience and strive toward the creation of a world characterized by compassionate mutual understanding.

Pantheism versus Panentheism

As a panentheist, I've never understood the point of pantheism, since all pantheism seems to do is give the universe another name without adding anything to one's understanding of it. Instead of calling the universe God, we could just as easily call it Bob and achieve the same thing. In effect, the God of pantheism is reduced to a merely tautological formulation. It is as if in mathematics we say that 3 = 3. Okay, that's nice--so what? And if we think that by calling the Universe God we did add something to our understanding of it--made it a source of reverrence or whatever--then that would imply that at some level our understanding of "God" is something more than the universe alone (apparently without wanting to admit it), which takes us right back to panentheism.

What is the the point of pantheism, exactly?