Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Is Religious Literalism Dying?

When it comes to religion, I'm a pretty extreme non-literalist. I pretty much take nothing in our sacred texts literally. I certainly don't see the story of Creation as scientifically, historically accurate, for example. In fact, I've often said that if there is a single accurate historical fact in the Torah, it's by accident. From what I've learned, the Hebrew Bible starts in with semi-reliable history somewhere in the book of Kings (somewhere around Kings David and Solomon).

This non-literalism extends to God, as well. I certainly don't believe, in any literal way, in the God presented by the Torah — I don't think that there is a being "out there" with whom we can have conversations and arguments. I don't even believe in most of the not-quite-as-literal images of God I read about, such as "God as energy." Most people, if they heard me talk about what I do believe, would pretty much write me off off as an atheist (it happens all the time when I bother to get involved in on-line discussions). I'm not an atheist, but I certainly don't believe in anything like what almost everyone means when they use the word, "God."

I've made this comment before, but I've long wondered how unusual I am, when it comes to this. I know that I am far from unique — there are many people in religious life who believe, and disbelieve, much as I do (have you heard about Art Green and his book Radical Judaism? It might be worth a read…). But, I don't have any sense about how widespread this kind of religious thinking is. Am I part of an insignificant, fringe movement with no real impact on the wider religious world? Or, do I represent a significant minority? And, more importantly, and more interestingly, do I perhaps represent a growing minority? Whatever the numbers are currently, is this worldview becoming more prevalent? Does this kind of non-literal spirituality represent a future, or the future, of religion?

Daniel Dennett seems to think so. In a recent article in Religion Dispatches, he discusses the future of religion in the Internet Age, and believes that there's just no way that religions and religious people will be able to continue to hold to anything like biblical literalism when the scientific counter-truths are so readily available:
I don’t see how the traditional credal models of religion are going to be able to withstand this sort of epistemological pressure. I think that we see trends even in traditional evangelical churches that are moving away from doctrine and more into allegiance and ceremony and letting people be more relaxed about what they actually believe.
Dennett isn't writing off religion completely. We still have a lot to offer, so long as we remember that our job isn't to be bad science. But, I especially love that he points out (which I may have mentioned once or twice in my time, as well) that, in some ways, science can beat religion at its own game:
To the extent that religions are very much engaged in enriching lives with meaning, with ceremony, and even with a sense of mystery and awe, that’s all good. I think the problem comes when they think that they have to put their awe-inspiring myths in competition with the equally – or I would say more – awe-inspiring discoveries of science.
I mean, if religion is in the Awe business, then which of these is actually more Awesome (in the original, religious sense of being awe-inspiring)?

  1. An all powerful Being who can, by definition, do anything, created us one Friday morning with full intelligence and consciousness, or
  2. A bunch of molecules randomly got together and, over time, figured out how to recombine in ways that allowed for intelligence and consciousness to emerge, which would then be used to try to figure out that process that led to their creation?
I dunno. I can understand that first one. But, the second? It blows my mind, just trying to think about it. It's pretty damn awe-inspiring! Science doesn't have to lead to less religion. If we believe in the power of awe, then it can actually lead to more!

But, that's an aside (albeit one that I love). The real question is whether we are at the start of a revolution in religious thought. Can old orthodoxies long survive in a world with effectively unlimited access to information? Or, are the ultra-fundamentalisms that are so prevalent today nothing more than rear-guard desperation moves, doomed for failure, sooner rather than later (as a certain Art Green describes them)?

I don't think anyone really knows the answer. But, I'd love to hear your opinions. And, more to the point, I'm going to enjoy watching the actual answer unfold!

Awe Deprivation

I came across an interesting article in the New York Times last week. It was about the importance of Awe. If you've heard me speak more than a few times, you know how important this topic is to me. Awe is one of the core religious emotions and impulses*--it's at the foundation of most of our authentic religious/spiritual moments, and an integral part of all religious life.

* The other two are need and gratitude. This is all summed up in the pithy statement (which I first heard from Rabbi Rick Block) that there are only 3 prayers in the world, and they're all 1 word: "Please," "Thanks," and "Wow." Everything else is just a wordier version of these.

Of course, if you've heard me speak more than a few times, you've also heard me quote or reference Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel more than a few times, too. And, no one does a better job of talking about awe than Heschel. More than anyone I've ever come across, Heschel is almost obsessed with awe--with experiencing it, with trying to express it, and especially with trying to get people to seek it out, and to embrace it. In fact, it was probably his writing about awe, more than anything else, which really drew me to him.

This article, though, adds a nice perspective to this ongoing conversation. First of all, it confirms, scientifically, the effect that awe can have on us. They actually do awe-based experiments, and show that people are nicer to each other after experiencing awe. It reminded me of a lesson I learned from Jay Michaelson who taught that one of the universal criteria for authentic mystical experiences is an increase in kindness. If you have what you think is a mystical experience, and you don't feel kinder towards others when you're done, then you didn't have an honest mystical experience. True religion and kindness are inextricably joined together [insert diatribe against cruel, evil religious extremists here].

The article also tries to think a bit about why awe is so powerful. What it comes up with isn't so shockingly new, but it's worth thinking about. Awe is, by definition, an awareness of our own smallness as compared to the greatness of God, or the world, or one aspect of the world (think of the feeling we get when standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, or watching a massive storm roll in). That sense of smallness leads pretty smoothly to a realization that our own needs are, ultimately, pretty inconsequential. And that makes it much easier to be open to the needs of others around us. The greatness of the world makes it seem much less important to focus on the needs of little old me!

But, it's the last point in the article that might be most worth thinking about. Because, if awe is so important (and, I'm pretty sure that it is), then we should think seriously about how much awe we're getting, and how we can get more:
You could make the case that our culture today is awe-deprived. Adults spend more and more time working and commuting and less time outdoors and with other people. Camping trips, picnics and midnight skies are forgone in favor of working weekends and late at night. Attendance at arts events — live music, theater, museums and galleries — has dropped over the years. This goes for children, too: Arts and music programs in schools are being dismantled in lieu of programs better suited to standardized testing; time outdoors and for novel, unbounded exploration are sacrificed for résumé-building activities. 
We believe that awe deprivation has had a hand in a broad societal shift that has been widely observed over the past 50 years: People have become more individualistic, more self-focused, more materialistic and less connected to others. To reverse this trend, we suggest that people insist on experiencing more everyday awe, to actively seek out what gives them goose bumps, be it in looking at trees, night skies, patterns of wind on water or the quotidian nobility of others — the teenage punk who gives up his seat on public transportation, the young child who explores the world in a state of wonder, the person who presses on against all odds. 
All of us will be better off for it.
If your religion (or whatever else you have in your life, if you're not religious) hasn't been helping to lead you to more awe, then it's been failing you. Go see some art. Go out in nature. Find something awe inspiring, and just take it in.

Pursue those goosebumps. They're the sign of an encounter with something, or some One, worth knowing.