Thursday, December 01, 2005

Must a secular ‘way of being’ be ‘broken’ and devoid of the sacred?

Here I continue the discussion of a previous thread, and also begin to respond to Jim F.’s unpublished paper “Theology as a Hermeneutic of Religious Experience,” which he was generous enough to send me privately. If this makes this post especially confusing to other readers, I’m sorry. (If it is unfair to Jim to respond like this without his text being available to all to speak for itself, I apologize for that too!) Because Jim’s paper is not (I hope) written for the layman, I am not equipped to get all one could out of some of its technical terminology and arguments; but still I found it unusually fascinating and thought-provoking. I hope I was able to take some significant ideas away. My responses will show whether that is so, or whether instead my technical inadequacies have allowed me to go grossly astray, landing me flat on my face.

From Jim’s paper I think I got a better sense of what he called at one point in his last comment a “world-view/mythology/universe of discourse/world.” I hope I will not conflate too badly the two senses of this he mentioned in that last comment, but if left uncorrected, here and in subsequent installments of my response I will simply use the term “way of being” (short for “way of being in the world,” and closely related to “myth,” with the latter narrating the former)—the preferred term in his paper, which I agree is a quite enlightening way to think about it.
…myth shapes human existence by giving us a structure on which we hang our understanding of society and the world…

As a framework or ordering that makes understanding possible, the symbolic realm of myth and ritual is broader than that of philosophical and theological reflection. Indeed, myth and ritual are not merely ways of understanding the world, means for reflection. The myth and ritual of any particular religion manifest a way of being in the world—an attitude in the root sense of the word, a way of fitting, an aptitude—namely, the way of being of the religion in question. Reflection and understanding occur within the myth or ordering given by that way of being…
The term ‘way of being’ really comes into its own with the following insight:
Like many, perhaps even all religions, biblical religions call us to live in a certain way. They may do so conceptually, but they need not and, for the most part, they do not. For the most part, they call us to engage ourselves in the world in a particular way, and they do that with scripture and ritual and, especially, in their practices. As Kierkegaard points out, “The Christian thesis goes not: intelligere ut credam, nor credere ut intelligam. No it goes: Act according to the commands and orders of Christ; do the Father's will—and you will become a believing-one.”
Hence, for example, the Mormon emphasis on worthiness as a prerequisite to testimony.

These quotations refer specifically to religion, but I believe they can also be applied to secular or scientific ways of being. For instance, science arguably has its own “scripture and ritual and, especially, … practices.” Only those who practice it—who are immersed in this way of being—can really begin to appreciate its power. Laymen are often not truly converted, but instead mere sign-seekers willing to consume the technological fruits of science upon their lusts. They lack what Stephen J. Gould calls an “intimacy with the world of science (knowing its norms in their bones, and its quirks and foibles in their daily experience)…”. With their lips they draw nigh to science, but they deny the power thereof. For when the moment of temptation arrives—when the results of science threaten to open new possibilities for the construction of secular myths offering alternative meanings of our lives, and reasonable norms that might govern them—those not deeply rooted succumb. Unable to “apply a professional’s ‘feel’ for the doing of science to grasp the technical complexities…in a useful manner inaccessible to [non-scientists]” (Gould again, here and previously in a different context), they are seduced by such false doctrines as young-earth creationism or Intelligent Design—perverse abominations to those who live and breathe and practice science.

(Jim’s paper and previous comments make clear that he is not one such apostate of the scientific myth, even if he might wish for reforms. While he would reject secular myths of human meaning built on present scientific understandings, he does not reject scientific findings or methods in what he would consider their own sphere, nor attempt to inappropriately bastardize either scientific or religious myth.)

Down off my soapbox, and back to Jim’s paper: I’m not familiar with the detailed analysis, but am generally aware that objectivity pure and undefiled is not possible, and so tend to accept as very likely the assertion that not only ‘religion’ but also ‘secularism’ also operates within the context of a particular myth or way of being. (Indeed, the preceding paragraphs illustrate that I accept it.)

If I understood Jim’s paper correctly, his main argument is that if analysis of religion is to be undertaken, it ought to be done within the context of its own religious myth and not through the lens of the secular myth.

He goes further, saying it is not, as usually asserted, the religious myth that is “broken”—in the sense, I gather, of being blind to its own mythical underpinnings, and unable to account for itself—but the secular one. I think the overall tone of the paper may be too pessimistic towards the possibilities of a more viable secular myth. For one thing, secularism need not be conceived as monolithic. There is no single religious myth or way of being, and the same is true of secular myths. I am not persuaded that all possible versions of secularism that might be constructed are necessarily broken. Just as Jim suggests it may be possible to reflect validly and meaningfully on a religion from within its own way of being, the same may be true of a secular way of being.

As as final note in this first part of my response, I urge that care be taken with the religious/secular dichotomy that has been set up here. I do think it’s workable with sufficient wisdom and discretion. In particular, the possibility exists that, with appropriate definitions, both religious and secular ways of being could each have sacred and profane elements or aspects. I assert that religious ways of being do not, or should not, enjoy hegemony over sacredness. Consider, for example, the feeling evoked by Darwin’s closing sentence of The Origin of Species:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful have been, and are being, evolved.
As for profanity in religious ways of being, religiously motivated terrorism comes immediately to mind in the harshest sense of ‘profane.’ More benignly, one may consider the frequency with which sentimentality is passed off as spirituality in lessons and talks, or—more visually—the kitsch in a Deseret Book catalog. (I hasten to add that when I say “profane,” I do not necessarily imply inappropriateness—there’s nothing necessarily inappropriate about, say, green jello or missionary open houses—it’s just that they may not be sacred, regardless of how ingrained they may be in our religious way of being.)


There must be an infinite number of ways being a-religous, and since you more or less acknowledge this diversity it seems inconsistent to suggest that all a-religious persons, unlike religious ones, lack awareness of their dependence on postulates. Note that not all the philosopher who ever lived were religious! Anyway, what's so great about being aware of one's dependence on postulates, if one isn't making a living off philosophy? The awareness just gets in the way of putting your theory of the world to use. But actually I think the diversity of secular world views is consistent with the hypothesized healthierness of being unfettered by ancient scriptural or institutional dogma. Humanity one hopes is learning something and it's through our individual efforts of skeptical inquiry and testing of beliefs. The useful ones spread from person to person and may become universal, to the extent there's no competition. No form of religion I've heard of has an idea that competes with the one that the Earth is spheroid and gravity pulls things toward the center of it, so it's no wonder that idea is universal among educated non-crazy people in developed nations. Other ideas such as about social insurance run into conflict with many conventional ideologies, including some ways of being religious, and so it's not surprising that social insurance is universally accepted as a good thing. Just some thoughts off the top of the head.

Comment by MT | 12/02/2005 06:45:00 PM  

In particular, Hume noticed that the reliability of induction was a postulate! I count that as pretty darn self aware! 

Comment by MT | 12/02/2005 06:48:00 PM  

MT, I take it you're largely arguing against Jim? I think my post is rather symapthetic to the view you express.

One thing I take to be a defining feature of religion is that it makes claims about things beyond this world---life after death, unseen divine and devilish beings in operation, etc. Very many people find such ideas "useful" in ordering their lives, and hence religion is spread very wide (nearly universal), even if its otherworldly claims are not testable in a scientific way.

The combination of the facts that (1) humans have a capacity to imagine the future, (2) humans desperately want to transcend death and misery, and (3) the range of stories that can be tested scientifically is limited, suggest to me that religion is here to stay. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/03/2005 08:17:00 AM  

Christian, I pretty much agree that there is no necessary reason that the secular myth must; be a broken myth. However, that is the assumption of the work to which I was responding and it wasn't an assumption I was focusing on. In addition, I think that though it isn't necessary, it is the case that the contemporary secular myth, in most of its various versions--i.e., in general--does assume that it doesn't have a mythical structure. That is the usual, though not necessary, understanding of "objectivity."

MT: I think you've misunderstood. Neither Christian nor I have said that "all a-religious persons, unlike religious ones, lack awareness of their dependence on postulates." It isn't a question of awareness. Rather, it is a question of what is implicit in a particular myth. As I said in my response to Christian, above, as is it usually understood today the secular myth implicitly assumes that it is the way of understanding the world rather than a way of seeing it. It sees other ways of seeing the world, such as religion or art as dependent on it and, so, as metaphorical at best.

All: Sorry to continually recommend other readings, but there is a fairly nice and well-written account of what this means with regard to scripture in Kevin J. Vanhoozer, "Scripture and Tradition," in Van Hoozer, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology 149-169. I don't agree with Vanhoozer and others that the position he describes requires belief in creation ex nihilo and in the Nicean Trinity, but I do think that position is quite close to what I am trying to argue.  

Comment by Jim F. | 12/03/2005 08:23:00 AM  

Christian, please do not apologize for continuing this dialog! I appreciate the opportunity to observe.

Jim, keep the reading recommendations coming! :-) 

Comment by LisaB | 12/03/2005 08:42:00 AM  

I should point out that not only do I not believe that the position Vanhoozer outlines requires creation ex nihilo or traditional Trinitarianism, I also differ from him in believing that what is canonized is what is accepted by the Church as canon, and that continuing revelation is necessary as a guard against the dangers of sola scriptura. Continuing revelation insures that scripture can continue to question us.  

Comment by Jim F. | 12/03/2005 08:50:00 AM  

I changed the title of the post---to make it more descriptive, which I think is more helpful than labeling by numerical "parts"---and because in my browser the "1" of "Part 1" was left dangling by itself on a second line, which I came to find aesthetically intolerable.

Jim, thanks for your thoughts (and also the additional reference). Even though I stripped the part number from the title of the post, it is still my intention that there be more to come. The question of what is scripture, which you address in your last comment, is definitely one of the things I wanted to dig into further in another post (definitely an important matter for a "scriptural" theology to have straight!). But so far I'm glad we can agree that a secular way of being need not necessarily be 'broken,' even if the most common versions espoused today are. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/03/2005 11:19:00 AM  

MT, I take it you're largely arguing against Jim? I think my post is rather symapthetic to the view you express. 

I could believe that. I just came out swinging without paying attention to who was refereeing and who was fighting. Sorry to both of you also that I seem to have misconstrued Jim F.'s point initially. Let me try again with what Jim F. wrote above

I think that though it isn't necessary, it is the case that the contemporary secular myth, in most of its various versions--i.e., in general--does assume that it doesn't have a mythical structure. That is the usual, though not necessary, understanding of "objectivity."

I guess the "though it isn't necessary" clause moots my initial quarrel. The rest seems like I might agree with were it fleshed out exactly what we're talking about and/or were we to agree on terms. Generally I'm dubious of unsubstantiated claims ala "what all our opponents think" or "the essence of what our opponents think" though I make my own fare share of them. I'm suspicious of the word "myth" as vague and risking argument by innuendo, which is why I went with my own word "postulate." I haven't seen Jim F's paper so I can only speculate what "structure of myth" might mean. "Myth" suggests "bad" to me, so I usually talk about "theories" and "stories" in the context of world view, under the implicit assumption that "just a theory" or "just a story" is no denigration in the context of metaphysics, because given my personal metaphysics, theories and stories are all we have. I think the text of a person's holy book and the sermons of their priests and the culture of their sunday school shape people's world views, but not in the way of a mold that leaves everybody with the same general structure. More like the stake that the vine creeps up. People may talk about their stakes and conclude they think the same way, but it's not obvious to me that that should carry any weight. We're a lot more complicated than our conscious selves realize. Especially more than our fundamentalist conscious selves realize. If the issue is dogmatism or open-mindedness or the degree to which each of us clings to our system of beliefs, I suspect that's largely divorceable from the issue of religious doctrines or whether you're religious and belongs more to psychology and physiology. As someone who works with other scientists and reads their papers, I'm sure Christian realizes that some people are more credulous or hopeful and less skeptical and hard-nosed than others. Everybody is a scientist of some quality in some or even most aspects of their lives. We can't help but form hypotheses ("I hear a car! Sally's home!" and have them tested ("Oh, it's the postman. That's right, Sally's car has a rattly muffler"). Biblical literalists choose not to be scientists about "how we got here" and "what it's all about." I suppose religious folk are scientific in a more constrained why: Superimposing different lessons or perspectives from the scripture onto a given aspect of your life and looking for the one that works the best for you. It seems obvious to me that optimising under fewer constraints and with more stringent tests gives you better answers. Assuming no prophets. 

Comment by MT | 12/03/2005 10:24:00 PM  

I mispoke. I'm not a scientist about how we got here. I simply choose to go with the testimony of the biology department over the theology department, having listened and looked at a show of evidentiary wares from both with what I consider to be an open mind. That my undermine one of my points, but I've posted enough for the eve. 

Comment by MT | 12/03/2005 10:29:00 PM  


I agree with your idea of the vine climbing the stake and our tendency to thing that everyone's stake is the same. With regard to religious principles (even in a religion as prescribed and correlated and internally consistent as Mormonism attempts to be) each individual has her own personal stake and should not attempt to mold another person's stake to hers.

Jim states:
"as is it usually understood today the secular myth implicitly assumes that it is the way of understanding the world rather than a way of seeing it. "as is it usually understood today the secular myth implicitly assumes that it is the way of understanding the world rather than a way of seeing it.

It is this arrogance of science (which often pales in comparison to the arrogance of religion) that is as unhealthy in science as it is in spiritual things. Science is as dogmatic as religion in many ways and if scientists are more willing to see what they believe as truth as a way of seeing the world, progress and discovery of truth would likely proceed at a much faster rate.

Comment by Mike W. | 12/04/2005 12:44:00 AM  

Thanks Mike. Just to clarify, my metaphor was the stakes could be uniform--representing a single religious creed--but still everybody's vine curls around their standard stake a different way.  

Comment by MT | 12/04/2005 01:54:00 AM  

MT,  just to comment a bit further beyond what Mike said...

First, neither Jim nor I intended "myth" as pejorative. As he's quoted in the original post above, "myth shapes human existence by giving us a structure on which we hang our understanding of society and the world." He quarrels with claims that a secular or scientific worldview or way of being achieves pure objectivity, free of any underlying framework or filter. Your discussion of theories, stories, etc. seems at least roughly consonant with him on this point.

Second, I agree that also religious people are "scientific" if loosely speaking we mean that most people will give up stories that prove non-functional when tested against their experience. My point above (here ) about religion always remaining with us is that it makes claims that cannot be tested in this life, and therefore are not weeded out. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/04/2005 08:21:00 AM  

I find myself translating "myth structure" as "psychology." Also I think it's an often invoked red herring to talk about testable claims. Lots of secular theories aren't testable, like unregulated markets being the best way to run an economy or like string theory. I think the question individuals face is "whose claims?" or "which communities' claims?" Rather than scientists in this regard we are like detectives or journalists or even venture capitalists auditing power point presentations on who to fund. We're deciding which community is the most credible or persuasive or sounds like it has the most to offer us. Who gives the better presentation? The secular world isn't giving only one presentation, but I'm consistently unimpressed by the presentations the various religious communities of the world have made. Meanwhile by picking and choosing among secular ideas ("I'll take Freud, but I'll reject Meyers-Briggs"), I've cobbled together a world view I'm quite (self) satisfied with. When I shop for secular views, it feels like the merchants are putting more on display to convince me of the authenticity of what I'm being asked to buy. Darwin's dead, but they do cite lots of smart living people who claim to be doing confirmatory tests of the theory all the time. I've met some of these people. I've seen the huge institutions that society builds for them (universities). Incidentally, it seems to me a lot more modern captial is in secular thought than in religious thought. Meanwhile at the religious table the testimony of the living people they cite in evidence is all personal and subjective or unwitnessed or unsupported by others. Some have claims like "I saw the statue of Mary cry tears of blood" which are supported, but this is meager evidence to support the claim that everything or even anything in the Bible is true. I suppose it's evidence for the idea that some things are mysterious and lack an obvious explanation, but duh. Yes, we'll have to scratch our heads and throw a bunch of scholars at the mystery of why that statue is oozing red stuff, but I doubt the most credible story their going to come up with is "turns out that whole Bible story is true and this is one of those 'miracle' things the Bible talks about." What's more, when it comes to a statue of the Virgin Mary, the mullahs and the rabbis are likely to be with me in preferring the secular explanations. When I average over all potential oozing statues--Parvati, Ester, Buddha, Aisha, etc--I see the various religous communities shuffling and trading places betewen the "miracle" and secular (or forensic) explanation. You might say they disappear in the integral and the only density left is at the secular position.  

Comment by MT | 12/04/2005 01:46:00 PM  

As to secular views being devoid of the sacred, boy is that a loaded question. I believe in and acknowledge the existence of all the love and feelings you do. I just think they have a biochemical explanation. That doesn't mean I think they're unimportant. Yet you would force me to admit I don't call them "sacred." To me that word is intrinsically religious. If religion were to disappear, I might start using it, but in the meantime there's way too much risk of understanding. As I prefer to talk, nothing is sacred. | 12/04/2005 01:55:00 PM  

i.e. "risk of MISunderstanding" | 12/04/2005 01:56:00 PM  

I'm assuming the final comment is yours, MT?

I'm in way over my head here, and also haven’t read any of the suggested material (although I may have read the theodicy paper by Jim a while back?) but let me ramble for a bit and see what results.

I agree w/ Jim's assertion that religious myth, texts, ritual, and ways of being are basically different than secular and scientific theories, texts, rituals, and methods. Jim--do you think the instances in which it sounds like the scriptural text challenges us to experiment upon the word in a seemingly scientific way are examples of God condescending to speak in our language for the sake of understanding?

I tend to think of natural law as part and partial of larger spiritual law. Rather than nothing being spiritual/ sacred, everything is. Rather than these being two completely different discourses, these are both claimed (by our theology I believe) to be merely different facets of or perspectives on the whole of Truth (which I believe to be conceptual/ abstract/ collective--for lack of a better way to describe it, not just Personal as Jim posits).

Bringing up the biochemical causes or effects of emotions/ instincts like love is where my interests intersect with this discussion. To me, LDS theology seems to embrace physical experience--even bodily instincts--even elevates them in a way completely radical to traditional Christianity. Isn't this a point where the religious text makes emphatic claims about the physical world, Christian?

Comment by LisaB | 12/04/2005 11:07:00 PM  

MT,  I'm quite sympathetic to your long comment (here ) and think you make some great points.  

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/05/2005 10:09:00 AM  

LisaB,  yes, the two comments preceding yours were also from MT. Everyone, remember that for your name to appear on the comment you must use the comment form on the main post page. The name information on the word verification page is irrelevant and will not show up. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/05/2005 10:12:00 AM  

MT  and LisaB, I disagree with both of you on one point: I don't think nothing is sacred, but also don't think that everything is sacred. My intention is to write something soon that clarifies this. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/05/2005 10:13:00 AM  

LisaB:  I think most Mormons, like you, think that in the end all truth will be resolvable into a single overaching universe of discourse or way of being. Jim's comments on the previous thread (e.g. here  to Pete) say he is not sure this is possible or necessary; as he said here he thinks 'all truth into one great whole' may refer to the wholeness of an individual person---who may participate in mutltiple universes of discourse---rather than a single conceptual system. 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/05/2005 10:19:00 AM  

LisaB,  finally, I have to backtrack about suggesting that only 'scientific' statements make claims about the real world. I provisionally accept the possibility of Jim's view that the scriptures make factual statements that may be conceptually different from scientific ones, but nevertheless 'true'. But this is a point I am keen to examine more closely.

I too have absorbed the idea that Mormonism's embrace of physicality is an interesting break from traditional Christendom.

I'm also very interested in the biological underpinnings of subjective experience and emotion. As I said in my opening post,  this is a major theme of the book that inspired this blog's title. I also mentioned the biochemical nature of love in this post

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/05/2005 10:30:00 AM  

I guess I'll have to look harder for something to argue with you about, Christian! You make it hard! I saw you took your lead from Damasio. He's attracted a lot of critical review from philosophers and even other neuroscientists in places like the New York Review of Books, which you might like to check out if you haven't gone looking already. I haven't read his books (did meet him though! not half as charming as EO) or more than a couple reviews long ago, but I know there are people with bones to pick.


Comment by MT | 12/05/2005 10:58:00 AM  

Read that as

By the way, "I saw you took your lead from Damasio."

I'm not trying to argue with you about Damasio. Or really anything most of the time. Just like the sound of my own voice so much I take every occasion to hear it. | 12/05/2005 11:02:00 AM  


So what to make of those who have been able to marry science and religion? Is there an internal inconsistency manifesting a personal insincerity? I don't believe so. As I mentioned earlier, I think that often religion is as arrogant as science, if not more so. But there are many religious individuals who drop their dogma and arrogance in their search for truth, regardless of the source or form of delivery. I understand the difficulty with subjectivity and lack of ability to test and disprove relgious claims using scientific methods.

However it seems that one should ask whether there exist other ways to know something, other than through 5 senses in the predominant secular world view. Because if there is, the paradigm must shift.


Comment by Mike W. | 12/05/2005 01:51:00 PM  

Mike W, My feeling is that people tolerate inconsistencies. Also that they can wax mystical, and they're in a perfectly natural physiological state when they do. If believing something makes you happy in itself or is something on which many sources of happiness depend, you're unconscious is likely to try to keep you believing it. People can deny with all sincerity that their left arm is paralysed or that they can see. It happens even to Nobel prize winners: The brain is weird. Sorry for the inevitable condescension of this sermon. At least I don't think religious people are going to be burned alive forever in a parallel universe.  

Comment by MT | 12/05/2005 02:47:00 PM  

Yes, I understood Jim's assertion about the one great whole, just disagree w/ it.

Thanks for pointing me to your intro. I felt I had a pretty good intro from your comments elsewhere, and don't think I was far off in my understanding.

Yeah, I guess I don't think everything is sacred, either. Some have been profaned. I don't think many (natural) things are neutral. 

Comment by LisaB | 12/05/2005 04:23:00 PM  

MT: It seems your last post is an example of both scientific arrogance and religious arrogance. Might there be another way of knowing something, or are we to dismiss something out of hand just because we don't understand how it may work? What are your thoughts?

I don't know your religious background but apparently you have been exposed to the religious arrogance of believers demonstrated by the perception that believers condemns non-believers (in this case scientists) to Hell. Consignment to being burned alive is not my role and I don't think you will encounter that prejudice or presumptiveness on this blog. Faith is a component regarding reward in an eternal existance. How we treat others (whether believer or not) is as large a component. 

Comment by Mike W. | 12/06/2005 02:11:00 PM  

The burn in hell thing I'm getting from the televangelists. Obviously no religious person I know has ever said that to me. Though when I was registering my car in the south for the first time and inquiring about what I could do on behalf of my fiance, I said lightly that we were "living in sin" and the DMV woman said "Well, you said it, I didn't." Yes, I am righteous in regard to the anti-supernatural aspect of my world view. It makes perfect sense for people of other minds to see it as arrogance, and I think we all deserve a pat on the back for being polite and sympathetic in spite of the fact. That said, according to Christian's most recent post, he's lost a lot of his (I presume) mostly religious readers lately, so I'll be myself down.  

Comment by MT | 12/06/2005 05:56:00 PM  

..."be quieting myself down"

I meant to type. [Note to self: Now shhh!] | 12/06/2005 05:59:00 PM  

MT, thanks for the pointers to reviews of Damasio's book. I found a couple of them and found them interesting.

I understand liking to hear one's own voice. I'm the same way. I could read my words over and over again. ;-> 

Comment by Christian Y. Cardall | 12/07/2005 06:31:00 AM  

LisaB: the whole of Truth (which I believe to be conceptual/ abstract/ collective--for lack of a better way to describe it, not just Personal as Jim posits) 

A minor quibble and a question: Quibble--I don't posit that the whole of truth is not conceptual, only that it might not be. My posit is a very weak one.

One question in three forms: Why insert "just" before "personal" when Christ identifies himself with truth? Why assume that the personal is, in some way, less than the abstract (and, if it is, what is that way)? For what reason should we assume that the wholeness of truth is conceptual?

Sorry that I've not been very active in this discussion. It is final exam time.  

Comment by Jim F. | 12/07/2005 01:32:00 PM  

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