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A Response to Stuart Aken’s Blog on “Why are we required to respect religion?”

Images of Religious Symbols courtesy of Wikimedia

Images of Religious Symbols courtesy of Wikimedia

Writer Stuart Aken, in his blog entitled I’d Like to Know: Why? #3 Religion, asks the provocative question: “Why are We Required to Respect Religion?” This question is of interest to me as a Christ-follower (even though I would not characterize myself as religious—I know other people would characterize me in that way).
As I thought about Mr. Aken’s blog, it led me to think about how the phrasing of the question channels the responses that this question elicits. It’s always handy to set up a contest or a discussion so that only one side is given the bows and arrows while the other is left only with a shield. It’s like a Canadian or American football game where the rules of the contest allow only one team to play offence (and hence is best set up to score points) while the other is perpetually on defense. I think such a rule-based asymmetry is neither sporting nor does it readily necessarily let the better team prevail.

If one looks at the question in its current form, then Christians, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and other adherents of a religion are on trial to justify their beliefs and explain why their beliefs merit respect, but atheists, agnostics, materialists, and secularists are excluded from scrutiny by the form of the question itself.
It seems to me a more instructive and fairer form of the question would be: “Why should I respect the World View of others when their World View differs from my own?” In this context I use “World View” to mean how I and others view reality. I think this re-configuring of the question has important advantages:

1. Now everyone, religious and agnostic alike has a chip in the game and has beliefs that may be called into question.
2. It ought to be understood that everyone intrinsically believes that their World View best explains the real world (material and spiritual).
3. Any criticism that is leveled at another World View can also properly be asked of one’s own. So if one asks if religious world views are prone to violence, one has to ask if one’s own World View is different in this regard and why.
4. In this kind of a discussion, if one begins to believe that many of the key things one genuinely believes about the nature of reality are wrong, this will be a very unsettling development for everyone who experiences it—not just religious people.
5. Finally, I think it prevents participants in the discussion from making the disastrous mistake of assuming that all religions are really the same, merely because they are religions. Even within a religion there may be substantial differences in World View by adherents because of differences in emphasis, in interpretation of sacred texts, in theology, or by reconciliation with other sources of evidence.

Thank you Mr. Aken for raising this important topic. Perhaps as time becomes available, I will be able to give my perspective on some of the other follow-on questions you raised in your post.

G. K. Chesterton on Paganism

The Everlasting ManI have been reading G. K. Chesterton’s The Everlasting Man. This book, first published in 1925, has much to say to a 21st century reader. For me, the early chapters generated one of those wonderful intellectual events, when on reading Chesterton’s account, a number of disparate puzzles coalesced for me and came together in an ‘ah hah’ moment.

Let me explain. In chapters V-VII, Chesterton describes three strands of paganism which ran side-by-side: mythology with all of its fantastic stories; philosophy, particularly post-Socratic philosophy which has given our civilization so much; and those strands of paganism which worshiped demons and were linked with human sacrifice such as Moloch worshipers in Palestine and the Aztecs in the new world. In one sense these three strands were contradictory. How could philosophically rigorous thinkers participate in rites and observances related to Bacchus? How could peoples who at least believed in objective values, as Lewis calls it, the tao (The Abolition of Man), degenerate into human sacrifice?

Chesterton showed how these strands really represented three attempts to connect with the spiritual. Mythology was an act of the imagination. Philosophy was an act of reason, but the two always remained separate, if parallel, strands of connection to the spiritual Other. The darker strand of demonology and human sacrifice, was more pragmatic than the other two. At some point, reason and imagination were abandoned and people sought for what worked. And so dark powers were invoked, requiring hideous sacrifices, all to a pragmatic end – they’ll give us the power that we want.

Chesterton goes on to point out that synthesis between the philosophical strands and the imaginative yearning for mystical experience were only thoroughly synthesized in the Middle Ages. From my own reading I can see how Thomas Aquinas was able to bring reason, faith, and mystical experience together. Perhaps this is why pagan societies, for all their shortcomings, were often very open to the Gospel. The imagination, reason, along with objective value had prepared them.

One final point. In my last post, I discussed the book Living at the Crossroads. It was interesting to see how in our current age the imaginative strand and the logical strand have parted company again. We have Postmodernism (imaginative strand) and Modernism (logical, data-driven strand) existing side by side. We yearn for the beauty and meaning of Postmodernism and yet fall back to the sterile world of data and logic because in some sense it is more connected with reality and outcomes. We have lost the synthesis.

If you have read The Everlasting Man, I would appreciate hearing what you thought of it.

Thanks for reading,

Peter

On Reading LIVING AT THE CROSSROADS by Michael W. Goheen and Craig G. Bartholomew

Crossroads CoverEffective communication means not only speaking and writing cogently and precisely but also developing an understanding of how our words will be perceived by the listener or reader. Words are filtered or perhaps interpreted through the Worldview of the listener.

Michael Goheen and Craig Bartholomew have written an interesting book on Worldview subtitled An Introduction to Christian Worldview. In order to understand their points it’s useful to begin with a description and history of the key term “Worldview” detailed in their work.

Goheen and Bartholomew in Living at the Crossroads (LATC) trace the concept of Worldview back to Kant’s Weltanschauung, a term which was developed further by the idealist philosopher Friedrich Schelling. Weltanschauung, or Worldview is denoted as a comprehensive and cohesive set of beliefs that underlie and shape all human thought and action.

In other worlds, to use a metaphor, Worldview is the set of glasses through which we see the world. Often, as glasses, if they have been on long enough, we don’t even realize they color everything. This realization is important from two perspectives:

  1. If you are speaking to someone with a different Worldview, communication will be difficult because the very words themselves will be re-translated by the Worldview.
  2. If one seeks to minimize one’s bias, it is important to understand one’s own Worldview and how it colors what one hears and reads.

Now although we all have a Worldview, I do not at all insist that all Worldviews are equal. It matters a great deal how closely the Worldview mirrors reality and sinceSunglasses Worldviews are often contradictory at points, it is unreasonable to believe they all map into reality equally well.

I share Goheen and Bartholomew’s Christian Worldview and it was interesting to me to read how the Christian Worldview intersects and reacts to two other Worldviews currently prevalent in the West: Modernism and Postmodernism.

Modernism

Conversion of EuropeIn Chapter 6 they trace the rise of Modernism through Reformation and the development of modern science from its Christian roots to the point where by the end of the eighteenth century is firmly based on confessional humanism. This transformation is summarized in one graphic and Modernism is based on four principles (page 91):

  1. Faith in progress
  2. Faith in reason
  3. Faith in technology
  4. Faith in a rationally ordered world

To my mind, these four faiths of Modernism also point to the great weaknesses of this perspective:

  1. How do we define progress? Progress becomes things we can measure: Gross Domestic Product, Average Income, and Life Expectancy. These are important, but are these the most important?
  2. Reason is very important, but what assumptions do we bring to reason and what concepts of right and wrong do we bring to reason?
  3. Science and technology are two-edged swords. They can give us polio vaccines and hydrogen bombs. Is our capability outstripping our ability to control our self-interest and quest for dominance? Where do our restraints come from?

Postmodernism

LATC tackles Postmodernism in Chapter 7. Goheen and Bartholomew point to Jean-Francois Lyotard and his “incredulity toward metanarratives” (page 109) as a defining characteristic. He and other Postmodernists are saying that Worldview defines everything. In other words reason must be distrusted when it comes to defining reality. LATC quotes Kenneth Gergen: “We are not dealing here with doubts regarding claims about the truth of human character, but with the full-scale abandonment of the concept of objective truth.” One of the few things Postmodernism shares with Modernism is their hostility towards Christianity. After that they are opposites.

Fact Value DichotomyThe two most significant things I learned from this book can be summarized as follows:

  1. Postmodernism can never completely vanquish or obliterate Modernism because Postmodernism doesn’t really work at any level that touches on reality. It may claim the sympathies of many, but eventually in public discourse, data and reasoned argument will still win out. So Modernism will not disappear.
  2. Although Christians (and presumably people of other Faiths) are able to participate in government at some level, Modernism will not let them be fully enfranchised since key political issues such as education of our young will always exclude their heart felt input. This is shown in the following figure. We can vote, but real choices we care about will never be on the ballot.

In summary, I would rate this book a 3 stars out of 5. I’m glad I read it, but it did not become part of my “go to” library.

If you have read this book, I’d love to hear from you and find out what you thought.

Thanks for reading,

Peter

A Note on the Kazmaier Rating system

4-5 Stars:             I will read this book over and over again.

3-Stars:                 I’m glad I read the book, but am unlikely to read again. If I do read it again, I’ll bump it up to 4 Stars.

2-Stars:                 I wish I hadn’t read the book.

1-Star                  To my mind this book is so poor, I’m stupider now for having read it.