SEPARATING REALMS OF DISCOURSE
Galactic Gods is an Oxymoron, Here’s Why
The Dalai Lama said, in a quote posted on Facebook on October 11, “If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims.”
That is also true for Christians, hard as it has often been to swallow. It took a long struggle for Christian authorities to accept the discovery that the earth is not the center of the universe, that the planet is composed of elements, that human beings evolved, and that other religions contain truths of value.
We have now come to another discovery that must be taken into account.
If the universe (that is if EVERYTHING) is composed of atoms, which are made up of infinitesimal vibrating strings of energy, as physics has theorized and as various diverse branches of astronomy and mathematics over the past three decades have tended to confirm, it changes everything about the way we do theology. We theologians have to back off and start over. It’s time to re-strategize.
This new job we have is not about eliminating superstition, devaluing myth, or doing away with religion as we come to terms with the purely physical origins of the universe. Nor, on the other hand, is it about defending religion or defeating atheism.
WHAT WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT
A realm of discourse is what goes on in a discussion that is contained or implied by agreed-upon parameters. For example, scientific discourse, philosophical discourse, civil law discourse, literary discourse, and theological discourse, to name a few. Each discussion may have a particular style; it may be argumentative, ironic or satirical, descriptive, or any of various other styles. In the third place, the discussion has a context that includes specified participants, background of previous efforts, and agreement about logic, objectives and outcomes.
So, when astro-physicists talk about borons, quarks, and leptons there is no need to talk about gods. That does not mean that the scientists reject the idea of God, but that God is irrelevant in that scientific realm of discourse.
The reason God or divinities of all kinds are irrelevant is due also to the discourse that is valid about God. God’s meaningful roles are instigation (e.g. Creation, determination (e.g. Judgment) and intervention (e.g. salvation). Since astro-physical discourse has no roles identified as an absolute beginning – even the “Big Bang” cannot be proven to be the only occurrence or even the only “singularity” – there is no role for a creator of all the 11 dimensions of things (of which we can conceptualize only 3).
To jump from that understanding of reality, as many do, to conclude that there is no valid “god” is wrong. That conclusion or any mention of God in discussion of astrophysics, is a confusion of realms of discourse. It is confusing to insinuate “God” into a discourse about how atoms and galaxies originate and operate. It is illogical to deduce that ALL talk about gods is absurd since talk about gods is not relevant in every and all realms of discourse. No more is it illogical to refrain from talking about the Andromeda Galaxy when telling the story of the Garden of Eden.
Talk about God is valid in certain, but not all, realms of discourse.
Theology is also necessary. The human race cannot do without theology and religion. As a physician commented, religion is “in our DNA.” Wipe it out and it will re-emerge.
If God is not the creator of any physical THING because all things are composed of vibrating sub-atomic energy without beginning or ending, does that mean God is not the Creator? What about, “When God began to create … everything was chaotic (tohu wabohu)” (Genesis 1:1 ff)?
That brings us back to the appropriate realm of discourse.
In some sense other than as the astro-physical “originator or organizer,” God is creative. But what other sense is there? To answer that we need to begin by inquiring about what we know and what limitations we have. In all humility, those limitations are severe. As collective observers of the universe, we have actually observed less than 5% or our own galaxy, which is but one of billions of galaxies. As theological pundits, we have to admit that the very idea of God is beyond our reckoning; all we know is what we can conclude from God’s interventions in our lives. Any god we can “comprehend” (i.e. fully understand) is a personification of ourself.
Limitations I presently have and assume to be real include: (a) birth and death; we exist for a time. (b) Life is biological; we are animals, so we have zoological functions and conditions. (c) We are cognizant beings; we can compile sensations into aggregations of significance to us. (d) There is much that is unknown; we have scarcely any solid knowledge about the future and only partial retention of past experiences.
These limitations would render us incapacitated if it were not for some profound order that puts “the odds temporarily in our favor.” We do awaken from sleep time after time. We do succeed sometimes, somehow, to bring our desires to fulfillment. We have emotional reactions that compound the impact of experiences. We have connections to other people, beings, and aspects of our environment that help us survive. These limitations suggest we should be humble.
Humility is strangely difficult for gurus and theologians. Theologians usually become defensive. We know our job is to dispute. What else can we do but build strong arguments against contrary arguments? That is precisely how disputation works.
We need, however, to take care. We should be willing to select the right battles.
If the universe and everything in it is energy in harmonic movement, theology needs to give up on ontology.
Ontology is the study of existence, and it is also the study of how we determine if things exist or not, as well as the classification of existence. It attempts to take things that are abstract and establish that they are, in fact, real. Therefore, having discovered that physical reality is energy without beginning or ending, ontology is not concerned with how, when, or why creation occurred, but only about the nature of that which exists. Theology is focused on other matters.
The function of theology is to rationalize concepts within a religion. So, what is a religion and what does it do? That is a philosophical question. Philosophy of religion is an on-going discussion. It is, I am arguing, at an intersection. For centuries, religions have contented for sovereignty over every human endeavor. Theology was “Queen of the sciences.” Priests were the ultimate authorities who invested lesser authorities with their crowns and kingdoms (at least that was the way it was supposed to be, they said). Simultaneously, without ever willingly admitting it, religions have also submitted to circumstances. Sovereign control over human enterprise is actually illusory. Greek religion yielded to Romanization and then Christianization. Each big shift claimed to be new and valid, while actually retaining a great deal of its cultural heredity.
Religion is inseparable from culture, and visa versa. What makes a religion valid is that it works as a cultural glue and unifying concept. When it stops doing that it lapses into irrelevance and obsolescence. Theology, then, is constantly reinterpreting the core understanding of a “culture-religion” to make it resonate within the prevailing circumstances.
I submit that every functional religion has four components:
A CORE NARRATIVE, a story that everyone identifies as true about a divine-human encounter.
RITUAL that symbolically re-enacts that encounter.
DOCTRINE, also usually called theology, that clarifies truth in contemporary terms and therefore defines correct behavior.
COMMUNITY, a body of people who agree to be associated in a social system that has a system of beliefs.
This implies why there can legitimately be several Buddhisms, for example. Few will argue about this, It is generally accepted that Theravada Buddhism is different from Mahayana Buddhism. Zen and Tibetan Buddhism are different, still. It’s not a big step to suggest that there are also regional differences, as between Buddhism in Bangkok and Buddhism in Rangoon.
The New York Times reported on October 6 that 8-year-old A. Altannar has been identified by monks in Mongolia to be the tenth reincarnation of the Bogd, one of the three most important figures in Tibetan Buddhism and the spiritual leader of Mongolia. This event is celebrated by Tibetan Buddhists, probably objected to by the People’s Republic of China authorities, considered inconsistent with the best Buddhist theology by Buddhists in Sri Lanka, and noted passively by Buddhists in Taiwan and Vietnam. Yet, all Buddhists are Buddhist, despite their differences.
Christians also have communities as well as larger collective units. It is, in fact, a struggle to keep Christianity from fragmenting as other religions have done. But essential identity is maintained as long as all the communities affirm the basic narrative, retain mutually recognized rituals to recapitulate the divine-human encounter that is described in the core narrative, and refrain from insisting that divergent theological interpretations of these things are totally irreconcilable.
Theology is third-level disputation. For example, “Jesus preached,” is first-level. First level discussion tells what the narrative says Jesus said. “What this preaching by Jesus means,” is second level. Second level comments interpret what Jesus’ sayings meant to his audience and to us. “The way to ascertain that meaning,” is third level. It is about how we interpret, our strategy, our filters and methods for arriving at understanding.
The third level of questions might contain the inquiry, “Is it legitimate to use a papyrus from the Vatican archives to help us get insight about what Jesus said and did?” what, then, about a scripture supposedly about Jesus found in a Tibetan monastery library? What about golden tablets revealed to a prophet in New York State in 1827?
It is third-level argumentation when we decide to include or exclude ontology in our theological formulation about how to interpret Genesis 1 and John 1. If the idea is to leave ontology out of it and have nothing to do with how the universe came into being, what does “creation by God” mean? It cannot be ignored if we are to retain the Bible as an authoritative resource, indeed, as the central testimony on which our Theology is founded.
What is the role of Christian theology if it is not to talk about how God does it all?
How can we talk about God without transgressing into talk about creation of the physical universe? The way is simply to revert to the understanding that the type of discourse Christian theology uses (and that every religion uses) is METAPHORICAL. We need to go back to a positive regard for the value, authenticity, and utility of symbolic language. Even as late as the time Jewish and Christian scriptures were composed and first written, the prophets, scribes and teachers knew they were not writing about things that were literally true; the things they said were often true in some other way.
Paul says we are crucified in Christ and no longer live apart from Him. This cannot mean that we are physically crucified, dead, and alive. In fact, we know what Paul said is metaphorical. All Scripture, and everything in it, is about God. The Bible is a testament to our miniscule perception and frequent misconceptions and fallibility. The biblical writers were never hesitant to describe human frailty and limitations. Most human mistakes, however, are ascribed to people’s tendency to claim to be authorities about God, who is infinite and far beyond mortal comprehension.
At this point the argument I am undertaking is that (1) religious narratives are always metaphorical; (2) valid theologizing reinterprets these metaphors differently in differing cultural contexts.
Obviously, then, no one theological system is valid for everybody. The question is whether or not a theological construction is valid for the cultural community that espouses it.
What is required of a valid theology?
A VALID THEOLOGY MUST DO THE FOLLOWING:
a. Work to produce community cohesion
b. Provide a framework for moral behavior for members of the community
c. Be understandable in light of other truth systems (philosophies) held by the community.
d. Explain that human wisdom has need for mystery, paradox, and transcendence
e. Utilize the religious central narrative
What is required of a valid narrative? All religions’ central narratives have certain characteristics:
a. A liminal character (a hero or sometimes a family) is the basic actor whose life and teaching connect the present to the primordial past. E.g., Buddha, Jesus Christ, Krishna, Zoroaster, etc.
b. Certain key events of the character’s life are ritualized. E.g. Birth, transition into self-awareness, death.
c. The present in which we live is the latest link in an unbroken chain of significant events that must be understood to go back to the origin of sacred time.
Coherent conversation on a topic is contained within an agreed upon realm of discourse. Religious discourse is conducted within a cultural context. Theology is the product of a philosophical process which explicates a chosen religious narrative for a particular community. It is metaphorically true and effective as an aspect of that community’s religion.
· The more universal a statement is meant to be the less it conforms to a specific narrative.
· It is illogical, disrespectful, and destructive to impose theological conclusions from one belief system onto another belief system.
· Belief systems are organic, whereas theological systems are synthetic (they are constructed to be coherent and without irregularities).
· Faith or belief systems evolve as the culture does.
Our crisis is not merely semantic.
We are ensnared in these times in a futile conflation of ideas. If these mistakes were all academic it would be less urgent to try to distinguish how we have gone wrong. But we are immersed in what amounts to ideological wars. On the surface they seem to be political, or economic, or perhaps ethnic. Or all three. But thousands are dying in Ukraine, Israel and Palestine, Somalia, and other places. 9-11 events and holocausts are ongoing. They are not merely unnecessary, they are horrific tragedies.
The failure to differentiate between realms of discourse has the potential to destroy us. Refusal to think clearly is contributing to the extinction event that is unfolding.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.