Can the Secular and Religious Converse?

wiemanWhenever you see a breakdown of communication, this is likely the failure of both parties seeking to communicate with one another. If it is true that the religious and secular cannot speak unless one gives up their own language, then both sides have failed to do their task. To begin with I’ll use Henry Nelson Wieman’s work on creative interchange in his book Man’s Ultimate Commitment.

The first act is to get to a position to talk to each other. That is, if we are always in the circles of people, groups, and networks that use the same language and accept the same basic premises it is not likely that you will ever encounter difference. Or perhaps you encounter it only when you are opposed. I talk to evangelicals in the state legislature when they are busy passing anti-gay bills. But I never get a chance to talk in a context where we could actually share and converse with each other.

This may seem like a basic requirement but it is in some ways the hardest to pull off. Because our organizational life is based on commonalities. So you have to intentionally create spaces that take you beyond this. Interfaith dialogs can do this, academia in some measure (for many students at OU this may be the first time they came across self-admitted atheists, Muslims, Hindus, etc.). Libraries come to mind.

Secondly, we need to believe that it is possible that there is some good to be had, some knowledge of God, some new way at looking at the world that is valuable that can be had in sharing with the other. If you presume there is nothing to learn from the other, the conversation won’t get off the ground. Or if you hit a rough patch the temptation will be to give up and declare the other person as not reasonable. But if you believe that there is something worth the trouble you may stick with this.

Thirdly, one has to imagine the other person, their life, their perspective in a way that can transform my sense of things. That is, there is a sympathetic placing of one’s self in the others shoes so you can see, if just for a moment, how they see and engage life. When someone, including myself, says that a perspective is “impossible to understand.” My guess is that there is a failure of the imagination and a failure to give the benefit of the doubt to the other person and their perspective. They are not trying the idea or the perspective on for size.

Having considered the other perspective, the other way of seeing the world, finally and fourthly there is a re-integration of my own history and ideas and perspective with theirs such that a new perspective or sense develops which is now inclusive of my history and my engagement with the other person. In that I need to be open to change and transformation in my engagement with the other. And if they are as well, you both should have descriptions inclusive of the other, some shared sense of things even if there is not 100% agreement you are more likely to develop inclusive ends as a result.

That is Wieman’s 4 folded path for what he calls creative interchange. We have many interactions in a given day, in a given life, but few are genuinely creative such that something new and inclusive emerges as a result of that interaction. But I suspect many of the religious and secular divides could be be crossed with such a method if both sides held to it.

But often we never get to the first what less the second stage of this process because when a different language is used, in particular, religious language, one party or both may drop out. But I would propose that there should be nothing inherit in religious language that proves to be a “conversation stopper.”

The most common objection to religious language is that since its realm is in the supernatural, there is nothing falsifiable about it. Your religious ideas may move you to do terrible deeds from clinic to suicide bombings or they may move you to work with AIDS victims, reaching out to the poor. The grounding is still based on what a religious text says, what clergy say, or whatever inspiration comes into your head. In this, the religious claims are not accessible to analysis, to reason, to justification.

But Josiah Royce starts with a different premise. Religious language begins in and finds it’s justification in human experience. Not just any kind of human experience though, but rather the kind that seeks to relate to our world and our life in it in saving ways. The religious experience of our race is the endeavor of mankind to bring to pass, or to move towards, the salvation of man.

It is an effort by human beings to secure, something of our world, and its resources, a way of life that brings unity to our experience and therefore meaning. It is a way to save both ourselves as individuals and a way to achieve salvation for others, because somehow we recognize in each other our own salvation. And it is a way to relate to our world as that reality which on some level will ground, provide a way of understanding and supporting these efforts.

While Royce asserts this, why should we believe him? Presume you are the atheist interlocutor that Richard Rorty is imaging. What else could you believe? Essentially Royce sees religious language, practices, religions themselves as a very human endeavor to negotiate our world towards the better. It is an expression of the “evolution of the human race.” I can find that by reading Daniel Dennett.

But if you don’t start with Royce’s premise, you either accept the story of supernatural sanction from on high that some religions will claim or you consign them to mad utterances in which case you believe that most of humanity and in my the case of Oklahoma, most of my neighbors have issues. But Royce proposes his route as a middle way. A way of treating religion as a human product.

The distinction Royce raises is between a psychological account of religion versus a theological account. Throughout the Problem of Christianity, he raises this distinction. He is interested in exploring religious ideas for what they do to describe our world, the human condition, resolving problems that individuals and their world in community experience. They may be unique to the respective religious tradition. The question is whether they are also speaking to the human condition. In this, he is not interested in the religious terms for their own sake.

For instance, consider ancestor worship in Confucianism. Say I am a philosophic naturalist, which I am, and I don’t believe in a supernatural realm, a realm where spirits could reside and enjoy the sacrifices offered to them, which I don’t. I could say, well that is superstition nothing to learn or engage here. But if I could imagine what it means to have piety towards my ancestor, to have a ritual act by which I am reminded that I did not create my world, what difference might that look like?

As a story, as a set of practices, is that something that we in the west could benefit from? The myth of self-creation which dominates our narratives might be challenged by such a view. Yes there are secular myths. That doesn’t mean you need to believe in the spirit realm or give up your language for another. It just means consider sympathetically what role it plays in the other such that we might learn from it.

A third premise that Royce does not specifically mention but I believe he operates with is captured by the term functionalism. I am thinking of Larry Hickman’s essay Making the Family Functional. Family in his paper is not determined by biology. As someone who was in foster care much of my childhood his essay always stuck with me. Family is not ontologically derived. It is found when the functions of family are performed.

So taking this into the realm of religion, if you want to engage religious ideas you have to get a sense of how a religious term functions. For instance, if God is the source of salvation, if you wanted to relate to God you would look at what in the world acts to save and transform us.

I believe Royce follows this method in the Problem of Christianity when he seeks to develop the idea of original sin in the chapter, the Moral Burden of the Individual. He doesn’t locate original sin in Adam and Eve, not to some mythic time but rather in the evolutionary process by which the individual develops and therefore finds themselves estranged from others. For Royce there is always a relation between the religious idea and some activity in the world, which is why religious ideas invariably have a relationship to human experience.

So this meme I came across on Facebook.

I admit I got the willies when I came across this meme on Facebook. And I’m a Christian pastor, albeit liberal. But when I see Satan ever talked about, I worry about what is to follow. But then when you consider this list…God stills, reassures, leads, enlightens, calms, comforts, encourages…Satan rushes, frightens, pushes, confuses, condemns, stresses, discourages, worries you…if we asked the Roycean question, we could ask, what operates in human experience to do the first list? That would be divine. What operates in human experience to do the latter? That would be demonic.

We don’t have to move to Rorty’s question at all. We don’t have to settle God’s existence, in some Dawkin’s sense of the term as an existent creature, supernatural existing out there. All we have to do is look at human experience and ask if these two religious symbols in some ways highlights something important for our consideration? If so, then we can converse.

As Victor Anderson suggests, this is the strength of any pragmatic naturalist account of religion. We formulate better questions as it pertains to situating religious ideas in this life and world. We also have the basis then of evaluation and critique. For what end? Gordon Kaufman proposes the criteria of humanization; for Royce that of salvation, for Victor Anderson human flourishing.  These bump into the central issues of life from race, class, war and peace, various hatred, climate change.

To pull the resources of our respective traditions is to be engaged in a translation project. Why not all just use the same language; the one of reason and science. That sounds suspiciously like the project of Esperanto. I take from Linell Cady and Gordon Kaufman the idea that religious language is just that: a language. This matters for Cady because it means religious languages are translatable; they can be commensurate with other languages and disciplines.

Languages provide a unique way of getting a hold of the world, colored by its history, accidents of history, geography which makes some languages more attentive to some features of the world. To lose any one of those languages or reduce them would be a genuine loss in how we describe what less get a hold of the world. I was intrigued by a piece in the Daily Mail that indicates how recent blue as a color is in most languages. Without the word, there was not just a lack of description, it seemed as if there was a lack of attention. The word gave us the clue to what to look for, what is important.

I think languages; including religious ones can do just that. But like any language they are not static. I have been studying Danish and it is amusing to see how many words from English, from French, from German that Danish has taken over and used for its own unique purposes. If we commit ourselves to this sort of creative exchange of languages, religious, secular and otherwise, we will be left with something that amounts to a transformation. Hopefully a transformation that makes more conversation possible.

Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma


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