Being in Uncertainty

by Kyle Cupp on October 25, 2012

Claire Creffield, an atheist who finds that, sometimes, “invoking the concept of God seems a very compelling way indeed of doing justice to the strangeness, the beauty and the peril of our lives,” asks whether a religious person could ever conceive of religion as a “non-creedal” way of “being in uncertainty” instead of as a provider of truth.  Could religion evolve from being centered on a set of shared beliefs to being a unique aid to philosophical reflection?

My inclination is to answer in the negative, at least in the context of the Western religions with which I’m familiar.   Religion cannot be a way of being without some defined sense of what it means for it to be.  Even after Creffield’s imagined metamorphosis, you would still have rules of interpretation plus acceptable and unacceptable interpretations guiding religious discourse and practice.  Look at the world of literature, to which Creffield wonders if this new religion would be comparable: it’s not governed by doctrine or creeds, per se, but the field of legitimate interpretation has its limits, even for works as complex as Hamlet or Moby-Dick.  Try arguing that the young Danish prince was really on a satanic quest to find and slay the White Whale.  See how far that gets you.

Religious myth, however, has historically functioned differently than literature.  As Karen Armstrong notes, religious myth was essentially a plan of action: “it could put you in the correct spiritual or psychological posture, but it was up to you to take the next step and make the ‘truth’ of the myth a reality in your own life.”  Myth called for ritual and communal purpose.  While its truth may not have been that of rational thought–logos–it nonetheless was a truth that gave meaning to the human condition in all its strangeness, mystery, tragedy, and absurdity.

Separating “truth” from religion, then, makes religion into something otherwise than it is.  You can step away from literalism without passing beyond the boundaries of the religious, but you cannot detach religion from its mythos, which provides a kind of truth.

Being in uncertainty, though–now there’s a plan of action religion can adopt.  Too much of religion suffers from charlatans selling certain answers to the sort of questions that ought to elicit awful wonder and humble silence.  These self-appointed prophets make a fine living dispensing sure guidance on self-aggrandizement, what specific behaviors God wills for you,  whom you should hate and hope goes to hell, and how you should distrust science and other secular pursuits–while having complete, unquestioning trust in them.  These poor souls lack faith because faith begins with the first step onto uncertain terrain, into dense fog that clouds the senses, and in a direction one can at best hope is the right way.  Religious faith is belief in things unseen.

Faith ultimately serves the logic of love, and the path of love is anything but certain. Death always threatens to take our loves from us and make our love seemingly foolish and self-defeating.  Religion that enables believers to incarnate their faith, hope, and love–in ritual, myth, and community–in and for a being who is infinite, ineffable, and wholly other, calls for the endless affirmation of uncertainty.  The more certain the religion, the less faith inspires it, the less hope nourishes it, the less love directs it.

Cross-posted on the FP.

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Visiting Heaven

by Kyle Cupp on October 18, 2012

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Eban Alexander has journeyed to heaven and returned to tell the tale.  In addition to writing an upcoming book, he chose to publish his private revelation in the pages of Newsweek.  He’s a neurosurgeon, so he’s credible, and we should believe his self-described logical and scientific account of what he experienced.

Except he doesn’t proceed with much of any logic or scientific methodology.  His story isn’t falsifiable and it doesn’t account for other variables.

Nonetheless, he assures us that “the theory that the brain, and in particular the cortex, generates consciousness and that we live in a universe devoid of any kind of emotion” lies broken at our feet.  “What happened to me destroyed it,” he proclaims.

We’re supposed to believe him because his cortex was simply off, not functioning, incapable of generating the consciousness necessary for the beautiful heavenly perceptions and sensations he experienced.  Or so he alleges.

Sam Harris scratches his head:

Everything—absolutely everything—in Alexander’s account rests on repeated assertions that his visions of heaven occurred while his cerebral cortex was “shut down,” “inactivated,” “completely shut down,” “totally offline,” and “stunned to complete inactivity.” The evidence he provides for this claim is not only inadequate—it suggests that he doesn’t know anything about the relevant brain science.

Unlike Harris, I’m not well-versed in scientific theory, and, even worse, I’m a church-going man of faith.  And I find Alexander’s account dubious at best.  He displays no doubt that his cortex had truly shut down and that his visions occurred at these precise moments.  He’s shows not the least bit of suspicion concerning his interpretation of these  experiences.  He visited an objectively existing heaven: a place of unconditional love, unified sensations, wordless communication, lofty gazes, indescribable beings, and a young peasant girl riding on a butterfly.  Good thing he was conscious!

Too bad he’s not more critical.  Consciousness is unreliable as a sure access to reality.  Alexander needs to read Paul Ricoeur, who, building on his reading of Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx, and approaching consciousness as primarily false consciousness, developed a type of hermeneutics aimed at interpreting expressions of religious meaning as illusions.  What we take to be religious experiences may deep down be the result of drugs, digestion, bodily chemistry, neurosis, the dread of death, the desire for ultimate meaning, or something quite otherwise than these.

I know this prospect isn’t comforting like the good doctor’s beautifully-described heavenly creatures, but I’m not in the business of religious comforts.  Religion shouldn’t be a numbing drug, a warm blanket, or a soft pillow.  Religion done well is about relationships with others and with Otherness itself, and when are these ever peachy from start to finish?  No, religion worth its salt is marked by broken hearts, fear and trembling, and the will to carry on.  It may provide occasions of comfort, but these are not its primary fruit.

I believe in heaven, in an eternal community of love, but I draw little comfort from this belief.  On those occasions that I contemplate heaven, it doesn’t envelop me in cozy sheets and covers; it kicks me out of bed, onto the hard floor, into the cold air and out into the dark night, reminding me how poorly I love, how undeserving I am to share in such a community.

The heaven envisioned by Eban Alexander made no moral demands upon him.  He was told that he could do no wrong.  He “returned” from that distant world with a purpose, but that purpose has nothing to do with loving with all his heart, caring for the poor, or tending the hurts of those who suffer.  He’s on a prophetic mission to make sure we all get consciousness and this “emerging picture of reality” right.  If we follow him, we’ll apparently arrive, some day, at a promised land beyond scattered science and religious myth.  Spare me.  This work sings of pride, not of faith or hope or love.

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Human Sexuality and Religious Norms

by Kyle Cupp on September 21, 2012

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Decades after the sexual revolution, many religious conservatives remain fiercely committed to preaching, if not always living, an absolute and absolutist understanding of human sexuality. Mainstream biologists, psychologists and sociologists, building on the science of evolution and other modern advancements of understanding, have helped redefine the meaning of normal when it comes to sex, moving mountains so to speak, and yet these religious conservative retain a rule-heavy belief about who should and shouldn’t be having sex and how sex ought always to be done by those morally permitted to get down to business. In word, if not always in every deed, they morally reject sex before marriage, entertaining lustful thoughts, masturbation, fornication, cohabitation, homosexuality, and pornography. They stand athwart the new normal yelling “Sin!”

Social progressives may hold out hope that these religious conservatives will one day appreciate sex as something good outside the hard and fast rules of their religion. I think this change unlikely because it would take a fundamental paradigm shift. Conservative Christians, for example, view human sexuality principally as a sacred reality. In a number of moral theologies, God designed human sexuality for the purpose of procreation, and commanded all human beings, from Adam and Eve onward, to be fruitful and multiply, engaging in sex strictly in accordance with the order of the divine plan. St. Thomas Aquinas argued this philosophically, concluding that every emission of semen, ordered in such a way that generation cannot follow, is contrary to the good and nature of man, and if done deliberately, a sin. Every sexual act must, in principle, follow a form that is open to life, whether or not the couple’s union is fertile, infertile, or sterile. To engage in sex in any way contrary to the good, human nature, and God’s design makes the person or persons involved arbiters of God’s plan, manipulators of something holy, grave sinners. They are not to take control of their sexuality, but control their appetites and behaviors in keeping with a strict religious meaning of sexuality to which is owed devotion and obedience. The giver of the gift of sex makes the rules, and they must follow these norms.

It should be noted that some religious conservatives will, in addition to approaching the reality of human sexuality from a theological position, also strive to understand its meaning from the standpoints of science, philosophy, and culture. They may accept that human sexuality is the result of millions of years of evolution, but—and this is key—they will interpret this evolutionary meaning in light of their religious doctrine. Where evolution may suggest a fluid meaning to sexuality, this meaning will be understood within the framework of the God-given morally-absolute meaning. All inquiry here will begin and end within the religious sphere, even if detours are taken into the sciences.

So long as these religious conservatives begin their understanding of human sexuality on the premises of revelation, they’ll not change on the basics. To make such change would indicate that the meanings of sex and of revelation are not truly fixed. What we might see in time is some of these religious conservatives changing the starting point of their approach to sex and sexual norms from religious premises to secular ones, beginning, for example, without the assumption that human sexuality has an immutable divinely-given meaning, but rather a fluid evolutionary one. Were this road to be taken, while religion retained, the statements in revelation pertaining to sex would have to be reinterpreted so as to be taken less literally. The theologies of God’s providence over human procreation would need to be rethought. In this context, a sexual revolution would necessitate a religious revolution. We’re unlikely to witness such a sweeping change, especially given the position of religious conservatives, who stand not passively against the waves of secularism, but seek actively to turn the tide and win converts to their cause. (FP)

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Paul Ryan and the Catholic Vote

by Kyle Cupp on August 11, 2012

Sarah Posner of Religion Dispatches worries that Romney’s pick of former Ayn Rand superfan Paul Ryan will “ignite a religious war of words”:

Although House Republicans of course were not eager to advertise this, the USCCB did write letters to Congressional committees, citing concerns that Ryan’s budget failed to meet “moral criteria” because it was based on “disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor and vulnerable persons.” The result: politicians’ arguments not over the budget, but over what type of budget is supported by Catholic teaching. But these are arguments for Catholics, for academics, for theologians. Seeking clerical approval (or disapproval) of legislative and policy proposals is at odds with our secular democracy. (Believe me, I understand the impulse to discredit Ryan’s claim that Catholic teaching supports his budget, but there are serious problems with officeholders and office seekers using and abusing the imprimateur of religious authorities.) Romney’s pick of Ryan, though, virtually ensures that arguments over the meaning of Catholic teaching will become an integral part of the presidential campaign. And remember, now both vice-presidential candidates are Catholics—of different stripes.

If we’re talking about seeking clerical approval, as in permission, then I agree there’s good cause for concern, but Ryan didn’t seek permission from then Archbishop Dolan to go ahead with his Path to Prosperity.  Ryan made a case (wrongly, in my opinion) that his budget was in keeping with Catholic principles, wanting, it seems, Dolan’s blessing or at least recognition of this.  He received a polite non-answer.

There’s nothing at odds here with secular democracy.  Ryan knew his budget would receive heavy criticism from Left-leaning Catholics, which could conceivably affect support for it among Catholics in general, and he wanted to be able to say to his fellow Catholics, “Hey, look: Archbishop Dolan agrees that this budget embodies the principles of Catholic social teaching.”  In doing this, he was treating his church as just another special interest group with potential sway over its members.  He wasn’t about to back down on his budget cuts if Archbishop Dolan disagreed with his assessment.  Ryan made a secular political move to gain support from members of a religious institution.  He wasn’t taking orders from any cleric or religious authority; he never was going to do such a thing.  Obtaining an imprimateur was never on his agenda.


I’m a Bad American

by Kyle Cupp on July 25, 2012

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I make it point to assume initially that Mitt Romney doesn’t believe the words that come out of his mouth, but the convictions he expressed in his VFW foreign policy speech may be just in the ballpark of sincerity:

I am an unapologetic believer in the greatness of this country. I am not ashamed of American power. I take pride that throughout history our power has brought justice where there was tyranny, peace where there was conflict, and hope where there was affliction and despair. I do not view America as just one more point on the strategic map, one more power to be balanced. I believe our country is the greatest force for good the world has ever known, and that our influence is needed as much now as ever. And I am guided by one overwhelming conviction and passion: This century must be an American Century.

Well, there’s some dandy religious apologetics for you!  And patriotic to boot!  Regrettably, Romney supporters among my fellow Christians will eat this up.  Regrettably because calling the country “the greatest force for good the world has ever known” is kind of a diss to Jesus.  Assuming that Romney meant by force something more than violence.  I hope we can assume that.  Time was when Christians opposed such nationalistic sentiments as idolatrous and sinful, but we are living in America now, so really how can the apostles and saints compete? Step aside you martyrs.  Put not your faith in the powers of love and forgiveness and hospitality.  This must be an American Century.  Capital C. For Christ Country.  “Believe in America,” says preacher Romney.

My own flamboyance aside, I recognize that the people of my country have done great things.  So have our public servants.  I’m not always ashamed of American power.  I’m next to eternally grateful for the Bill of Rights, most other Amendments to the Constitution, and the sacrifices Americans have made in the service of freedom.  We have a good thing going here; we don’t need to pride ourselves on being Earth’s mightiest heroes.  This “greatest force for good” crap, in addition to being an insult to the multitudes our power has harmed and destroyed, is a false gospel.  I am an unapologetic non-believer in this salvific narrative.  If that makes me a bad American, so be it.

Romney says, “This is very simple: if you do not want America to be the strongest nation on earth, I am not your President.”  He’s got that right.  The measure of a great country is not its strength.  Romney’s not my candidate.


Echoes on the Road

by Kyle Cupp on June 9, 2012

“What seems to me to be constitutive of the religious is, therefore, the fact of crediting a word, in accordance with a certain code and within the limits of a certain canon.  I would willingly propose, in order to develop this point, the idea of a series of hermeneutical ‘circles': I know this word because it is written, this writing because it is received and read; and this reading is accepted by a community, which, as a result, accepts to be deciphered by its founding texts; and it is this community that reads them. So, in a certain manner, to be a religious subject is to agree to enter or to have already entered into this vast circuit involving a founding word, mediating texts, and traditions of interpretation; I say traditions, because I have always been convinced that there was a multitude of interpretations within the Judeo-Christian domain, and so a certain pluralism, a certain competition between traditions of reception and of interpretation.


If pushed, I would agree to say that a religion is like a language into which one is either born or has been transferred by exile or hospitality; in any event, one feels at home there, which implies a recognition that there are other languages spoken by other people.”

– Paul Ricoeur, Critique and Conviction


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Much to Tom Van Dyke’s seemingly apparent confusion, I take a harshly critical stance toward the mitre-wearing powers that be who run the Roman Catholic Church, the institutional faith to which I belong.  As the magisterial authorities are a shiny key component of my religion, I can see how my seeming antagonism elicits some head-scratching.  Why do I, wayward pilgrim suspicious of religious authority, stay Catholic?

The short answer is that the sacramental way of being (towards truth, others, the world) described by Catholicism (through its imaginative rituals and doctrines) speaks to me in a manner qualitatively different than other faith traditions and the atheistic philosophies.  In my faith, I encounter what I can only describe as a sacred world, a meaningfulness that transcends the empirical while being revealed through what I can see, hear, smell, taste, and touch.  Moreover, as I’ve written before, my faith needs religious authority; the Gospel and the kerygma, the proclamation of religious truths, necessitates witnesses, transmitters, translators, interpreters, and other roles of authority to carry on the words of Christ.  Consequently, I do not oppose religious authority per se.  However, to some extent, all authority is corruptible, and the Church is, to a degree, a corrupt institution.  It always has been, and it always will be.  Any institution with the clerical power of the magisterium would have to be.  If we take sin and human fallibility seriously, we can see it no other way.

I happen to believe that the long tradition of Catholic theological and doctrinal thought offers a rich treasure to humanity–the encyclical letter Pacem in Terris is a godsend–but nevertheless, because of human fallibility and corruptibility, each and every claim of religious authority, each and every claim to speak in the name of God, warrants suspicion and criticism.  Each and every one, from the minor and tangential to the fundamental and essential.  The Gospel and the kerygma deserve nothing less.

It would be fair to call me a faithful, but critical and suspicious son of the Church.  I’m no theologian; the nuances of theology elude me.  My background is in literature and philosophy, and I come at my faith from these angles.  When I encounter weak arguments written by the authorities, I’m liable to counter.  When I come across interpretations asserted as definitive, I’m prone to a little epistemological skepticism.  I choose to stay a “Doubting Thomas,” a man of faith insisting on seeing the evidence.  I give assent with uncertainty.

To be clear: I love my church, and I want to see it succeed as a voice for truth and justice, goodness and mercy, beauty and love.  I want to see it effectively engage the world, friend and foe alike.  I also desire to see it learn from the world and incorporate the wisdom of the poets and the philosophers, the scientists and the laborers, and everyone else who has something to say–theists, atheists, and whoever else.  No one has a monopoly on truth or the best way to pursue it.  No truth-claims should go unchallenged, especially those by the self-described “experts in humanity.”


Vote Well or Go to Hell

by Kyle Cupp on May 16, 2012

I don’t have a TV and I seldom listen to the radio, so I’m spared the unseemly barrage of political advertisements that most Americans must suffer.  Alas, I cannot evade all the campaign season’s obnoxiousness.

I hang out in circles where it’s not uncommon to hear guidance on voting given with all the gentle prodding of a Grand Inquisitor.  Acquaintances, friends, and busybodies tell me, in no uncertain terms, that my religious faith requires me, in practice, to support whatever corrupt empty-suit the Godly Old Party selects because of a handful of non-negotiable issues that have in no way been prioritized for politically partisan reasons by Heaven’s white-robed gate keepers.

No thank you.

My faith can do without subservient allegiance to the power games of any party.  I’ll vote my conscience, thank you.  Take the ol’ prudential judgment out for a drive.  Take my best guess at which would-be leaders will act on the issues that are important to me in well-articulated ways I think may have a shot at working.

In the meantime, I’ll do my darndest to tune out the sanctimonious noise, with the caveat that I may, if in the mood, take unwholesome, snarky pleasure from unintentionally comical political ads like the following.


A Rational, Religious Mind

by Kyle Cupp on May 8, 2012

Alex Knapp summarizes the reason why many Christians reject the science of evolution:

For some Christians, evolution would, if true, completely shatter the doctrine of Original Sin. After all, if humans evolved, then there wasn’t an Adam, there wasn’t a Garden of Eden, and there wasn’t a Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. If that’s the case, these Christians believe, then there wasn’t a Fall and there wasn’t a reason for Christ to be crucified. Thus, in their minds, evolution is completely incompatible with Christian teachings.

As Alex notes, not all Christians think this way.  Some approach the story of Adam more as figurative myth than as literal history.  That’s pretty close to my take.  Others reject the doctrine of original sin.  I’m personally dubious of its traditional formulation.  The Roman Catholic response has been to acknowledge the insights from evolutionary theory while maintaining something of a literal reading of the Adamic narratives.  As recently as 1950, the pope, then Pius XII, had this to say:

For the faithful cannot embrace that opinion which maintains that either after Adam there existed on this earth true men who did not take their origin through natural generation from him as from the first parent of all, or that Adam represents a certain number of first parents. Now it is in no way apparent how such an opinion can be reconciled with that which the sources of revealed truth and the documents of the Teaching Authority of the Church propose with regard to original sin, which proceeds from a sin actually committed by an individual Adam and which, through generation, is passed on to all and is in everyone as his own.

You’ll notice that Pius treated an alleged historical-biological fact as an article of faith: Catholics must believe in a literal Adam from whom all humanity takes its origin.  He also maintained that original sin passes through generation, thus grounding a theological claim in a biological one.  As far as I know, the magisterium has not repudiated these assertions in Pius’s encyclical letter.  The phrase “now it is in no way apparent” leaves room for a change, however, as it could, to the Church’s mind, become apparent that science rules out the possibility of all humanity originating from a single individual.  The Catholic Church is, at least in theory, open to reforming its theology and doctrine in light of scientific conclusions.

I can’t speak for my coreligionists, but, personally, I wish they’d break the bad habit of making supposedly authoritative scientific truth claims from the standpoints of theological orthodoxy and devotion to doctrine.  The religious mind–which conceives the world in terms of myth, mystery, ritual and wonder–has its own value apart from the rational endeavors of the scientists and the philosophers.  The religious mind seeks a unique truth, even when its truth discloses a reality also pursued in other disciplines.  Its methods of inquiry and verification are different than those of science and philosophy.  Let them dialogue, but let’s not confuse them.  Because each has its own truth to offer, religious faith and reason have much to say to one another.  In my opinion, we benefit from listening to both and from cultivating a mind informed by both religiosity and reason.

Speaking of a rational, religious mind, my son, who’s five, complained to me this past Sunday about having to go to church.  He asked why we had to go, and I told him that God asked us to gather with others to celebrate the Mass.  His response: “Well, I didn’t hear him.”  I imagine some religiously-minded parents would have been horrified.  I was quietly pleased, and smiled as I helped him get ready.


The Assurances of Infallibility

by Kyle Cupp on May 2, 2012

Show me an alleged divinely-revealed truth, and I will show you the operations of religious authority, for there can be no transmission of such truth-claims without some degree of power. Not every religious authority, however, claims to possess the charism of infallibility—the ability to know the truth revealed by God and to teach truth without error. The Roman Catholic Church (in)famously does, of course: its teaching authority—the magisterium—claims to be infallible when speaking definitively and authoritatively on faith and morals. Infallibility, so the argument goes, enables the church to preserve the deposit of faith entrusted to it and to provide the faithful with assured instruction on living an authentic Christian life.

Astonishing and unbelievable as the idea is, the doctrine of infallibility makes logical sense given the complex ambiguity of revelation. God supposedly speaks to humanity about matters of eternal life and death, and yet is said to do so through inerrant religious texts and traditions marked by ambiguity and layers of meaning, a variety of genres, and myriad historical and cultural nuances (not to mention inaccuracies and inconsistencies). The inerrancy of sacred scripture, for example, has little to no practical consequence if its meaning can be interpreted in a variety of diverse, conflicting ways. The assurance that the bible is divinely inspired and free from error in the essentials doesn’t mean much without any assurance that a proposed interpretation of it is true or false.

Infallibility doesn’t actually solve this hermeneutic problem, however. Magisterial interpretations are themselves texts that call for the work of interpretation. They may be more clear and straightforward than the sacred writings composed in the early decades of the church, but, as texts, they remain open to a field of valid interpretations, even if the field is smaller than, say, biblical myths. The development of doctrine testifies to this. Religious authorities clarify their own definitive statements and those of their predecessors. Yet even clarifications can retain ambiguity. Infallibility doesn’t eliminate this possibility, even in cases where some meaning has been grasped.

Therefore, whatever its overall practical value, the doctrine of infallibility offers limited assurance. In addition to the hermeneutic problem, the doctrine itself is complex and ambiguous. There are allegedly degrees of infallibility, which can in effect suggest inconclusiveness about matters deemed infallibly taught. Moreover, it remains unclear whether some magisterial statements qualify as infallible or merely authoritative. You’ll find debate in the church, for example, over whether its teachings on human sexuality have really been infallibly stated and are therefore irreformable. Rome speaks; the meaning of the matter is questioned.

Whether with or without infallibility, the faithful row from within the same boat, under the same foggy night sky, struggling against the same waves and currents, without any absolute assurances that they’re headed in the right direction. The life of faith is always a journey in the dark.