Thursday, July 02, 2009

Writing activity from the past several weeks, Pt 4

As a high school teacher I taught world religions. I tried to stress that "there are always similarities and there are always differences." It is naive to suppose that religions hold their deepest truths in common. Two religions might teach the same thing but for vastly different reasons (Christianity and Buddhism have an extremely different take on why worldly attachments can be harmful).

Or they might teach the same doctrine but hold it in vastly different orders of priority relative to each religion's total framework; Hindus and Buddhist both hold something like moksha/nirvana as the ultimate spiritual destination, but Buddhists (afaik) have no analogue to Hinduism's legitimate life alternatives, like kama (sensuality) and artha (wealth and success). Hindus appear to be in no real hurry to escape from samsara.

But it's equally naive to suppose that they are totally irreconcilable. The religions are coextensive. There are real contradictions--I'm sorry, Ann Holmes Redding, either the Qu'ran or Jesus are the inerrant and ultimate revelation of God, not both; and no, that's not just a throwaway detail. To say you accept both is, in a way, saying that you reject the claims of both--claims that are held by more intellectually honest believers of either creed.

But there is a reason for the significant overlap between the distinctive teachings of Jesus and the wisdom of ancient Hindu sutras. Many Hindus believe that Jesus's youth was spent with the gurus in India (like early Christians thought that Plato's monotheism was plagiarized from Moses). More likely, it's the case that truth is a discovery to be encountered by divergent explorers, not an invention that can only spread through imitation by copycats.

Is it only your opinion that it's more likely, or do you have any evidence that supports that? I'm not saying that I don't also have that sense, but I'd like to hear reasoning in favor of, "more likely."

There's substantial overlap in certain teachings of different religions. The question is, can the overlap be interpret as a sign of enduring truth; or is it merely the cross-pollination of ideas?

Some points.

  • Inter-religious consensus on this or that doctrine is not a gaurantee of its truth; just as a popular vote is not a gaurantee of the goodness of the law voted for. Yet in both cases it seems the consensus and the truth are not completely irrelevant to each other. Still we can always point to certain doctrines that are more or less pan-religious and yet offensive to our consciences--like depriving women of dignity.
  • Inter-religious consensus on a morsel of wisdom might, given circumstances, be adequately explained either by independent parallel discovery or by cross-pollination. These two possibilities are also not mutually exclusive, as a culture's "good idea" might be a hybrid of something original and something borrowed.
  • In the case of independent parallel discovery, we have to admit the distinct possibility of mere coincidence, including the coincidence of disparate peoples arriving at the same error independently. Jimmy and Sally, neither one especially good at math, might both guess that 1/0 = 0.
  • In the case of cross-pollination, we also need to admit the distinct possibility that the morsel of wisdom may be really true; and the fact that one people discovered it independently while another discovered it through imitation is, by itself alone, not a dealbreaker for its being true.

In spite of all of this, I think that we are legitimately impressed when two very disparate peoples arrive at the same (or very similar) contingent possibility of development without having communicated with one-another. Take for example Mayan written language and advanced irrigation technology, remarkable for having no apparent roots in proto-Indo-European language or any influence by Eurasian ingenuity. One couldn't be blamed for inferring a certain common human ordering toward these developments, even if not all cultures have always (or yet) developed irrigation systems or written language and seem to get along fine without either.

Corroboration is not a deductive guarantee of objective truth, but it is a powerful inductive intimation of it. Science itself is the ever greater accumulation of corroborations and falsifications. If a certain idea has gained widespread currency, especially if it has done so through spontaneous independent parallel inspiration (some cite the maxim, "Treat others as you would want to be treated") that seems a valid argument that this morsel of wisdom has, as far as we know, universal validity.

But what about cross-pollination? Here we can perhaps more easily imagine scenarios where a bad idea spreads.

I tuckered myself out again. Some questions I want to return to:
-What makes an idea "bad"?
-What is the method of its cross-pollination? (Voluntary or involuntary?)
-If voluntary, what can we legitimately infer from the popularity of an idea?
-Under what circumstances might a popular idea also be a bad one?
-Is the popularity of an idea an argument for its truth, or at least that some part or aspect of it is true?

irrigation developed because of a need, just the way eyes developed because of a need -- not necessarily because of a truth. Evolutionary psychologists would probably say that the most successful religions satisfy basic human needs. As those needs are universal, it isn't too hard to believe that the constructs created to fulfill them would be similar.

The categories of needs and truths are also not mutually exclusive. William James was a fan of the notion that evolutionary psychology itself was a clue--mind you, a clue, not a smoking gun--not only about human beings, and not only about the physical, but the metaphysical and the moral spheres as well.

The evolution of eyes would seem in indicate the presence of that which is seeable, and the advantageous nature of the ability to detect and utilize that data. But the seeable was present before any such organ existed that could detect it. The truth preceded the need.

I believe in evolution and in the principle of natural selection, but I keep an open mind about the possibility that there may be other natural causes linking truths to needs and needs to mutations. I'm not a Lamarckist, and I know that "genes have no windows," i.e., that so far as we know there is no direct correlation between environment and genetic mutation. (Edit: Woo!)

Needs must be satisfied, and they must be satisfied by a something. We will not survive on a diet of air. The moral and the metaphysical are no less important to civilizations. If independent parallel technology development points so a truth about human needs and the means to satisfy them, why should not a a similar principle be one (among many) means of moral and metaphysical investigation?

I hardly claim that an entire religion can be patched together with this type of thinking; though such claims are made by "inductive theologians" (like Peter Berger in A Rumor of Angels). I also I sneer at attempts to "combine all religions"; unless the author is honest about the fact that the frankenstein result would not be an orthodox contributor to any one of them.

I only suggest that more than a few wisdoms cross the boundaries of creeds, and that this may speak strongly of potential universal validity.

If all of the teachings of religions, including the really popular ones, are nothing more than culturally relativistic memes that are chance subjects of viral popularization, then the only reason to study them is for ethnographic reasons. Like pinning butterflies to Styrofoam. There's nothing deep about that.

But if the massive upswing of the moral and metaphysical thought of civilizations; the trajectory of wide swaths of critical thought have moved here or there in a direction that was powerful and positive, it seems to me we can scarcely ignore them, and even that those movements deserve a certain respect (if not automatic assent).

I essentially agree with you, or I at least want to... of course, science waters down the miracle of all this and points to such overlaps as simple means to adaptive human behavior, like love, cohesiveness, cooperation... destroying or shunning outsiders...

But how universal are the deepest wisdoms that religion has to offer? How would we know, as human beings? We magnify the importance of things that pertain to us. Even if they are of the utmost importance to us, what do they tell us about the universe? What do they have to do with God? Where are we, in God's grand scheme? Why is there all that alien space beyond us?

Let's not be too daunted by the possibility that Jesus was influenced by Indian mystics. He would be no more of a copycat than the pope or any of us. I suppose, though, that the problem is that Jesus is not "supposed" to be ordinary, because Christianity says he isn't, which gives way to circular reasoning. We just aren't. supposed. to believe that. 'cause it's bad. Even though it wouldn't contradict claims of his divinity, it would be... discouraging for us. So we don't like to consider it, although it may be true. We tend to embrace comforting possibilities as more likely.

Sometimes, I don't like the things I watch myself think and say. I'm going to cut out the devil's advocacy, say my prayers, and go to sleep.

1 comment:

Matt of CG said...

"I believe in evolution and in the principle of natural selection..."

Adaptation is as far as I'm willing to go and I'm a living testament to the fact that the notion of natural selection doesn't apply to human beings in any way, shape, or form.

I remember PBS showing old footage of a study with the Aborigenes of Australia in which the question, "Do they know how to smile?" was raised. Being a Roman Catholic, I thought this was the stupidest question I've ever heard. But, I had to put myself in the shoes of the faithless person and say, "It is a stupid question, but I've got to start somewhere." To which my Roman Catholic self would answer, "Yup, you'll get there just don't get discouraged and quit moving forward if you see other folks moving more quickly than you."