Monday, April 25, 2011

Easter Sunday

We spent our Easter with my husband's family in the mountains of Arkansas. An incredibly beautiful spot in the world. We spent the holiday doing what we always do, eating a delicious meal with family and coloring and hiding eggs. In the churches of Christ, Easter is not observed as a religious holiday, interestingly. There is a concern over elevating one day over another, so in many of the congregations, no one mentions the resurrection on Easter Sunday, except perhaps during comments made before taking communion. I have long thought that was a shame.

On Sunday, I wished to be at a church that celebrated it in the more traditional way. Even though I have my doubts about the historicity of the event, I continue to be drawn to the image of resurrection with the hope, the transformation of suffering, and grace I connect to it. I also would have loved a quiet morning of reflection siting on a rock at his grandparent's farm, contemplating the surrounding mountains with tips hidden in fog. Instead, we attended his grandparent's church.

Everyone was friendly and the boys enjoyed their class, but the sermon left me irritated and deflated. It was a reminder of why many of us have such difficulty maintaining faith when we come from such constricted religious traditions. My current church is a breath of fresh air comparitively. The minister spoke on Galatians 1, where we are exhorted by Paul to reject any gospel preached to us other than what he already preached. I wondered what precisely was meant by gospel and how the original readers or we are to know that what Paul preached was the true gospel. The preacher cautioned against those who study excessively and come up with new gospels. He said to test everything against the Bible, even his own words. I did appreciate the humility in that statement. However, he went on to say that he could direct us to passages of the Bible to teach us the truth without interjecting any of his own interpretation. Though I grew up hearing such comments regularly, I now am surprised that anyone thinks that reading doesn't involve the process of interpretation. How else do we make meaning of words on the page? However, it is a comforting sort of belief, to think you can know with absolute certainty what God wants and who He is.

How did you experience Easter?

Monday, April 18, 2011

Pondering the Trinity

The latest book reviewed at my book club was "Exploring Reality: The Intertwining of Science and Religion" by John Polkinghorne. It was an ambitious overview of a variety of topics where science and religion both inform the discussion, such as the nature of reality, human agency, divine action, human nature, the historical Jesus, the Trinity, time, evil, diversity of religions, bioethics, and eschatology. As you might imagine, Polkinghorne merely scratches the surface of each of these topics. However, it's valuable as an overview from someone who has both a background in physics and theology. At our bookclub, we only discussed a few of the chapters, but one chapter we spent a fair amount of time on was "Divine Reality: The Trinity."

As an Anglican priest, Polkinghorne affirms the doctrine of the Trinity. He compares the strangeness of the doctrine of the Trinity with that of quantum reality, noting that "the everyday habits of thought may also require some revision when one engages in the task of seeking to understand divine reality."

Later he states, "Just as the physicists had to struggle with the duality of wave and particle because that was the task that nature had imposed upon them, so the theologians have had to struggle with trinitarian insight because the encounter with the one divine reality is inexorably shaped in a way that demands triadic understanding. It forces upon us thinking stranger than we could have thought. The process begins in the pages of the New Testament, as its writers are driven to acknowledge the Lordship of Christ and the work of the Spirit in their hearts, though they know also that the God of Israel is 'the Lord alone' (Deuteronomy 6:4)."

The doctrine of the Trinity is indeed strange. We struggle to find apt metaphor because there is no equivalent way of being here on earth. On the one hand, traditional Christian belief regards polytheism as heresy, so Christianity rejects the idea of three Gods. On the other hand, modalism is also to be rejected as heresy (the belief that the three persons of the trinity are three ways of approaching God.) I was raised to understand the Trinity using the metaphor of the egg: yolk, white, and shell. What they each correspond to I have no idea.

Is the concept of the trinity so difficult to grasp because it is beyond human imagination and description? Or is it an incoherent idea which developed from melding the monotheism inherited from Judaism with the elevation of Jesus as divine by the early Christian community?

Polkinghorne believes that the distinct relationships between Persons in the Trinity are essential to the idea of God being love. Can there be love without an object to love? Does love only make sense in the context of relationship? In speaking of the Trinity, he writes "The concept of what one might even dare to call a 'divine society' casts light on that fundamental Christian assertion that 'God is love' (I John 4:16). A strongly monistic picture of deity would seem to imply a static understanding of the role of divine love in the intrinsic divine nature, along the lines of the unrelentingly narcissistic self-regard of the God of Aristotle."

How do you understand the Trinity? What metaphors have you heard and found helpful or dismissed as inadequate? Do you accept or reject the concept of the Trinity?

I'm attracted to the idea of the divine society and find that morality and concepts like love make much more sense in that context. However, I can't escape the utter befuddlement I experience in making sense of the doctrine of the Trinity and am curious about the history of the development of it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Upcoming Discussion on "Gospels as Histories"

DagoodS will be creating a post to provide a forum for discussion on the first lecture from the iTunes University class "Gospels as Histories." While posting at LikeAChild's blog, DagoodS, D'Ma, and I thought it would be interesting to listen to some of the same lectures regarding historical influences on Christianity and then discuss them together. I encourage anyone who's interested to download the lecture and then stop by DagoodS blog. The post will likely be up on Monday. The lectures are FREE and quite well done.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Making Sense of How We View Ourselves and Others

Here I will conclude my posts on the philosophy of Michael Polanyi. I am very interested in the meaning we construct from our existence and how this impacts our understanding of and value we place on others. I am fairly pragmatic, so I am quite interested in how our world view impacts the way we treat ourselves and others. I not only want to know if it is true, but how it works. At work, I ask questions about world view and its effects on a daily basis in counseling sessions. For example, clients who come to see me who have extensive abuse histories often tell me they view life as quite harsh and have a limited capacity to trust and develop reciprocal relationships with others. They may treat others as objects to be used and seek to gratify themselves to the detriment of others. After all, they have experienced life as a dog-eat-dog world. Other clients react against abuse histories and make a point of seeking justice for themselves and others around them in an effort to rectify an unjust world. It is clear that humans are uniquely gifted at meaning making. It makes all the difference in how we live our lives. As Victor Frankl has told us, making meaning in the face of suffering allows us to survive and even thrive when we might otherwise give up in despair.

Polanyi fought the meaning made of our world and personhood within the reductionistic and nihilistic framework of 20th century western philosophy. He developed his philosophy during the World War II era while watching his world collapse under tyranny, war, and annihilation. In regard to reality and personhood, Polanyi wrote:

What is most tangible has the least meaning, and it is perverse then to identify the tangible with the real. For to regard a meaningless substratum as the ultimate reality of all things must lead to the conclusion that all things are meaningless. We can avoid this conclusion only if we acknowledge instead that the deepest reality is possessed by higher things that are least tangible...It is this sort of mechanical reductionism that is the heart of the matter...It is this that is the origin of the whole system of scientific obscurantism under which we are suffering today. This is the cause of our corruption of the conception of man, reducing him either to an insentient automaton or to a bundle of appetites. This is why science denies us the possibility of acknowledging personal responsibility. This is why science can be invoked so easily in support of totalitarian violence, why science has become the greatest source of dangerous fallacies today.

About Polanyi, Drusilla Scott wrote:

We all in some degree start from our conclusions, as Polanyi said he did. Bertrand Russell started from the conclusion that the rules and methods of the laboratory rule out persons, and was stoically prepared to be ruled out in theory, though in fact he went on illegitimately being there...Polanyi starts from the other end, from knowing persons and never doubting their entire reality, finding them decidedly more real than atoms. He looked full in the Gorgon face of this 'Science' whose rules of knowledge turn man to matter, and found it to be a false mask, for the real face of science is discovery, and discoveries are made by persons, not by rules. And the reality that persons know is, like persons, recognised as real because it can be known but never fully known; it draws and leads us by having always more to reveal, unforeseeable but in character.

History and personal experience inform us that it is not in the best interest of humanity to live out of a purely reductionistic, mechanistic worldview. When we don't view ourselves and others as having intrinsic worth, we use, objectify, and annihilate. In the field of psychology, we adamently assert to our clients that they are worthy, they are special, they are deserving of respect, and we express these values as self-evident. These values probably have root in the humanistic theories which replaced the mechanistic behaviorism from earlier in the 20th century. We've found that the mental health of clients doesn't fare well in the face of nihilistic philosophy. Maybe that in itself is an indication that it is fatally flawed. But what of humanistic philosophy that is not grounded in anything deeper than itself? Are there any fatal flaws there? What about the narcisism that appears to pervade our culture? Is it intellectually honest to value all life equally 'just because'? Is there really instrinsic worth? Where does it come from? Is this an indication that there is something transcendent which gives worth and meaning? Or is this unnecessary? Does the fact that our emotional wellbeing seems dependent on experiencing a sense of value and worth reflect a truth about our inherent value? What do you think?

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

How We Know What We Know

Life has slowed a tad from break-neck speed so I thought I'd take a few minutes to compose a post. I've missed being on this blog and have missed talking with everyone who comments here. I hope you will find your way back here again! I use to stay up til 1 am composing posts, but lately I haven't finished my work til that time and I'm just too exhausted to stay up any later.

In my last post I wrote about the book The Common Sense of Michael Polanyi. One concept he explored was that of tacit knowledge. Tacit knowledge is a way of "knowing more than we can say." It is an unconscious way of knowing that is often difficult to verbally express. We experience this when we learn to ride a bike. After a bit of practice, we just get it. We do without thinking. This is how experts operate. They create their art, sing their opera, perform the surgery, and bake the pie without deliberately thinking through every step. They adjust accordingly throughout their work without conscious awareness of doing so. If you've ever tried to get your grandma to write down a recipe for a dish she's made a hundred times, you know how difficult it is to get all the measurements quantified. The best you get is an approximation.

Polanyi believed that scientists relied on this tacit knowledge in the discovery process. The hunch, the intuition, the passion and curiosity are what drive the engine of science as opposed to the passionless, neat and orderly scientific method. He also believed that tacit knowledge plays a key role in our understanding of spiritual and religious matters.

Of Christian worship Polanyi stated, “(it) sustains, as it were an eternal, never to be consummated hunch, a heuristic vision which is accepted for the sake of its unresolvable tension. It is like an obsession with a problem known to be insoluable, which yet follows, against reason, unswervingly, the heuristic command: “Look at the unknown!”

Polanyi viewed “religious knowing” as a skill developed “by being brought up in a religion which is meaningful to the people we trust who are practicing it, just as we learn language, just as in science we learn by dwelling in a tradition, trusting it and sensing the meaning in it, so that we become able to go beyond it. By dwelling in the forms and rituals of one religion we can thus learn meanings which reach a more universal truth.”

This concept of tacit knowledge resonated with me and gave form to what I have been experiencing. My attraction to it may be partly due to the fact that I am an intuitive personality, and have leaned on my intuition in my work and personal life. For those more sensing types who learn about the world more through the material world around them, this discussion may make them squeamish. Certainly feel free to say so.

What I have found through my spiritual struggles is that though the facts of historical Christianity have been called into question for me, I haven't been left with a sense that the pursuit of spiritual matters is pointless. In fact, a part of me experiences a sense of renewal, a freedom to seek and "go beyond" my religious upbringing and to center on "a more universal truth" instead of "dwelling in the forms and rituals of one religion." However, I find that I am content to continue to let my children "dwell" in the tradition of our religion as it provides a framework to understand spiritual matters which they can then test, evaluate, and perhaps move beyond, in the sense of concerning themselves with the deeper meanings that may transcend religion.

There have been times when I've devalued my tacit knowledge and sought validation through facts and hard evidence. However, reading Polanyi has confirmed that hard evidence isn't the only means we have of knowing, nor is it necessarily the best. The fact that concepts like meaning and purpose and love and beauty matter to me and that I desire and seek depth and transcendence suggests that maybe I know more than I can tell about spiritual matters. Maybe religion is our best effort at explicitly stating that which can only be experienced as a "never to be consummated hunch."