Religion

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Here’s a Youtube I want to capture here. Ingmar shows an excerpt from a movie and then gives his thoughts on God which he replaces with holiness as seen by human beings through music and art.

Bergman's Wisdom

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The Rev. Carl Scovel, minister emeritus of King’s Chapel in Boston, and recipient of the UUA’s highest honor, the Distinquished Service Award, gave an amazing speech delivered before the Unitarian Universalist Association General Assembly in Fort Worth, Texas, on June 23, 1994. This is known as the Berry Street Lecture of 1994.

I knew Carl back in the mid-1950’s when we both attended the Gannet Club, a club for singles, at the Arlington Street Church in Boston. He was a serious young man, very knowledgeable and headed for the ministry even then. He had grown up in China as his parents were missionaries there. I remember once riding in a car with him and another bright young intellectual by the name of Karl Nelson (not sure of that first name), going to some club function. They were discussing 19th century religious people, and referred to someone as “the last of the Transcendentalists”. I was very impressed with their knowledge, and that expression stuck in my craw. I wonder whatever happened to that Nelson fellow.

Here is a inspiring excerpt from Carl’s lecture:

We also know that spirituality is not simply the product of fear, frustration, or bad digestion. We know that our yearning for meaning and fulfillment is given in our very being. So! Follow that yearning, need, reaching to its source, to our creation, to our createdness and surmise with me, if you will, that this yearning, this reaching, this need, is no accident, no psychic atavism, but a reflection of that reality from which we come.

The Great Surmise says simply this: At the heart of all creation lies a good intent, a purposeful goodness, from which we come, by which we live our fullest, to which we shall at last return. And this is the supreme reality of our lives.

This goodness is ultimate—not fate nor freedom, not mystery, energy, order nor finitude, but this good intent in creation is our source, our center, and our destiny. And with everything else we know in life, the strategies and schedules, the technology and tasks, with all we must know of freedom, fate and finitude, of energy and order and mystery, we must know this, first of all, the love from which we were born, which bears us now, and which will receive us at the end. Our work on earth is to explore, enjoy, and share this goodness, to know it without reserve or hesitation. “Too much of a good thing,” said Mae West, “is wonderful.” Sound doctrine.

Do you see how the Great Surmise stands all our logic and morality on its ear? Neither duty nor suffering nor progress nor conflict—not even survival—is the aim of life, but joy. Deep, abiding, uncompromised joy.

I would like to thank the Rev. Richard Beal for providing this excerpt and telling us about Carl Scovel’s Berry Street lecture.

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Last Sunday I caught Bill Moyers on PBS and he had two interesting interviewees as usual. The first, Neal Gabler, talked on the influence of Pop Culture on politics, and the second, Christian Wiman, talked about his life, love, incurable cancer, and he read a couple of his poems.

The theme of the Wiman interview was his love, faith, and incurable cancer. His two poems, “Five Houses Down” and “Sitting Down to Breakfast Alone”, were written during the infrequent times when he was free from worry and self doubt. Moyers quizzed him in depth about his religious faith and it’s clearly unconventional, although he is a christian.

Moyers showed an interview he had previously conducted with Clive James in which James showed great anger with God. Wiman’s response was that this was merely a human projection of God and that we have to get beyond this humanized notion. He invoked Simone Weil a couple times. At least Wiman is not your conventional christian if he likes Simone Weil who was a christian mystic. But he loses me at this point. However, I’ll hasten to add if there is a God, it would have to be incomprehensible in the sense that Wiman seems to believe, and perhaps even Weil.

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Sam Harris is a well known atheist, a hater of religion along with the other “horsemen”, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens, and Dan Dennett, but he has this mystical side. That word, mystical, must be defined very carefully, however, or the wrath of Sam will be upon you.

Here is a good tract by Sam Harris in which he goes into this. He argues that secularism has no content other than its negativity:

To be secular, one need do nothing more than live in perpetual opposition to the unsubstantiated claims of religious dogmatists.

The “mysticism” he espouses has to do with meditation and the mystery of consciousness. Here is the last sentence of his third note in his article:

Still, consciousness remains a genuine mystery, and anyone who attempts to study it is confronted by serious conceptual and empirical problems

Antonio Damasio, a well known neuroscientist, has a new book out in which he attempts to explain consciousness scientifically. However, John Searle, a well known American philosopher takes issue with Damasio’s claim in his New York Review of Books article, The Mystery of Consciousness Continues.

All very interesting.

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Lawrence Krauss (the officianados call him Larry;) has answered the question Why Is There Something Rather Than Nothing? in his new book, A Universe from Nothing: Why There Is Something Rather than Nothing, or should I say he has claimed to have answered the question.

But I’m sure old Martin Heidegger, Nazi sympathizer that he was, is rolling over in his grave now saying, “No, he hasn’t. The Nothing that Krauss uses is really not the true Nothing, but already a Something. The true Nothing is not empty space but the absence of empty space altogether, in fact, “There was not then what is nor what is not.”, as found in the Song of Creation from the Rig Veda is perhaps an approximate, and only approximate, way of characterizing the Nothing.”

I hope my translation of his German is accurate. Old Martin was talking really fast and sputtering in frustration from his grave there. But I think I caught the gist of it, I hope.

LOL

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Psybertron always leads me down untrodden paths. Today he introduced me, unbeknownst to him, to a heavyweight intellectual I had never heard of, Slavoj Zizek. The reason Zizek is interesting is that he is the very model of a modern secular humanist, i.e. the very model of what a secular humanist should be, one not just tolerant of both sides of fundamental issues, but radically tolerant of both sides. Now what this really means is still not entirely clear to me. Perhaps this final paragraph of Zizek’s The Empty Wheelbarrow will illustrate the point:

Recall the old story about a worker suspected of stealing. Every evening, when he was leaving the factory, the wheelbarrow he was rolling in front of him was carefully inspected, but it was always empty – till, finally, the guards got the point: what the worker was stealing were the wheel-barrows themselves. This is the trick that those who claim today “But the world is none the less better off without Saddam!” try to pull on us: they forget to include in the account the effects of the very military intervention against Saddam. Yes, the world is better without Saddam – but it is not better with the military occupation of Iraq, with the rise of Islamist fundamentalism provoked by this very occupation. The guy who first got this point about the wheelbarrow was an arch-intellectual.


OK, I think the point is clear, except I’m not sure of the last sentence, i.e. what is an arch-intellectual?

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Here’s a fascinating TED talk by Alain de Botton which he calls Atheism 2.0. The 2.0 comes from Alain’s rejecting the well known atheism, which one could call Atheism 1.0, of Richard Dawkins and his so-called four horsemen made up of himself, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, and Christopher Hitchens. Atheism 1.0 believes that “religion should not simply be tolerated but should be countered, criticized, and exposed by rational argument wherever its influence arises.” (See The Rise of the New Atheists by Simon Hooper). Alain de Botton begs to differ.

So, what does he believe? What is Atheism 2.0? I’m not sure myself after listening to the talk. Incidentally, on the link to the talk there are lots of comments. I started perusing these but gave up because it would be endless. Here, perhaps, is an example from my experience illustrating Atheism 2.0 in a special case (Alain de Botton might agree): I do not take the bible literally, don’t believe in the virgin birth, Mary, Jesus, the whole trinity thing, but I am greatly moved by religious music.

Here for example is the Stabat mater op.53, Part 6, by the Polish composure Karol Szymanowski. It’s slow, almost painful, but to me it has an excruciating beauty and power which even gives me a feeling of satisfaction in the face of my own finiteness and inevitable death. Lots of other religious music has pretty much the same effect on me.

Psybertron has an interesting checklist of headings for Alain de Botton’s TED talk. Well worth checking these.

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God versus Rationality may be a better way of phrasing the Religion versus Science debate. I always find great food for thought on Psybertron, and here’s some of that great food: Privilege which suggests we have not quite proven that we do not have a privileged place in the universe. This is well worth a serious read, including especially, the Larry Kraus quote linked to, and all the other links there. I’m still working on it and may not get to the end in my lifetime.

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Just discovered an interview by Third Way magazine of a Professor John Carey who appears to be a religious agnostic. Here are some excerpts that caught my fancy:

I also think that the notion that science, or logic, is capable of something you might say is truth is itself quite questionable. I mean, the human brain, the scientists tell us, is a piece of meat with electric impulses going through it. Now, why should that piece of meat have some connection with something called ‘truth’? You know? I don’t see why they’re so sure about it. It seems to me the whole business is so uncertain that their dogmatic certainty seems extraordinary.


And aggression – well, obviously, aggression is, alas, what you don’t want.
There’s another thing about the human brain from that point of view – going back to Richard Dawkins. He often talks about awe, doesn’t he? About how you don’t need religion because science gives you awe and wonder – as if religion only gives you awe and won­der! But awe and wonder, it seems to me, are simply traceable to the deficiencies of the human brain as it has dev­eloped over the millennia. What it’s developed to do is to, well, solve simple physical problems – make stone axes and so on. And if you look at subatomic particles and think how awesome they are – well, they’re only awesome because we’re completely unable to deal with them. What Dawkins calls ‘awe’ is actually ignorance. I don’t see anything particularly wonderful about it.

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I really enjoyed Bill Moyers interview with John Sexton, the president of NYU, last evening. He’s a fascinating and likable guy. Of course he believes in God, being raised a catholic in Brooklyn, NY, and apparently never straying from that belief. But I think I grasp what he’s trying to say, this thing about cognitive limitations, and different dimensions.

Here’s a portion of his conversation with Bill Moyers, taken from the transcript on the Moyers website:


BILL MOYERS: By ineffable, you mean?

JOHN SEXTON: I mean that what we’re discussing now is something that’s approached through music and poetry and mythos in the best sense of that word. You know, Americans talk about myth as falsehood. It’s become a synonym for falsehood, whereas myth speaks– I mean, Lisa had never reasoned to me to the fact that she loved me. I never reasoned her to the fact that I loved her.

It was something that was an experience truth, the deepest truths in life, including what we’re talking about here, including what I tried to get at in that course. Baseball is a Road to God, with its kind of, you know, a frolicky title is there’s something very serious. But it’s not something that you get to through cognitive processes.

This is why the war between science and religion seems to me is a false war. There’s no tension between science and religion. They’re different dimensions. So everything I’ve just said to you I know is a matter of faith. There are people out there on the NYU faculty that are embarrassed to have their president say this and I delight in that, you know. I mean, but it is something that’s real in my life and affects me day-in and day-out. It– it’s self-evident that there are important things that are not reducible to the cognitive. You know, now, the neuroscientists would like to map, you know, even the poetic parts of the brain. And so on. We’ll see where that goes. But the fact of the matter is that when I listened to Rachmaninoff’s second at the Philharmonic a couple of days ago, there was an ineffable transportation to another plane that undeniably became part of my experience.

I mean, I think Keats would say, at this point, that there’s a coalescence of what we’re talking about here, about transcendence and beauty and truth and faith.

Again, whether all this about different dimensions and knowledge beyond the cognitive, is true, or just a happy illusion, just more chemical effects on our endocrine system making us feel “transported” and into a false reality, I’m still undecided upon, terribly mixed up about. The new atheists, the Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, etc., have put religion in its place, the opiate of the people, the awful hypocrisy of it, the source of much of the world’s evil. But still, there are cognitive mysteries, like the “turtles all the way down” paradox. Of course, it appears that Rebecca Goldstein thinks Spinoza has explained all this rationally. Or perhaps not.

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