Sunday, February 28, 2010

Students and Colleagues and God

I continue to work hard with my students (in two of my classes, actually) to help them understand God and religion in new ways.

Here are some of the latest moments:

In Modern Philosophy, we are now reading Leibniz, and went over his version of the Cosmological Argument (the argument that says there has to be a "First Cause"). To my surprise, some of the students were impressed with this argument. One then said, "Ok, I'm convinced that there has to be some uncaused cause as a first cause, but why call this 'God'? What does the notion of 'first cause' have to do with heaven and hell?"

"You are assuming that some notion of heaven and hell is necessarily part of the concept of 'God'?" I asked, for clarification.

"Well, doesn't it have to be?" the student replied, bewildered.

That launched us into a discussion about the meanings of powerful words, that led to questions such as "what does 'God' really mean?" "what does 'religion' really mean?" and "what does 'Christianity' really mean?"

There's a lot I could say about how I tried to reply to these general questions of meanings of words (very short summary: I keep trying to tell my students that philosophy teaches you to be multi-lingual in your own language, to hold tentatively to definitions of key words and be open to the variety of ways that others define these terms, and be clear about your own definitions when you use these words), but I'll fast forward to a particular moment in this discussion that amazed me.

While we were talking about "religion," I was trying to get students to see past what I described as the "abuses" of this word, when religion is used to scare people and control their behavior. "That's not religion itself -- that's an abuse of religion!" (Yes, I was departing in this moment from my flexible stance towards words, but that was because the students were so locked into their own cynical attitude towards the word, and I wanted them to see that that's not what religion meant to some of the philosophers we were studying.)

One atheist student was stunned and almost angry. He exclaimed in outrage, "how can you say that's not what religion is?! Of course that's what religion is! That's exactly what religion is -- wielding power to control what other people think and do!"

"No," I insisted. "That's the abuse of religion. Religion itself is something else entirely!" I then described it as a quest for understanding the nature of ultimate reality and humans' relationship to that reality. I described it as the questioning of whether the universe is just an accident, indifferent to life and consciousness -- or infused with consciousness, maybe even ultimately caused by consciousness, pervaded with love and care.

"But we can never answer these questions," one student said.

Another added, "I appreciate all that, but that's just 'thought' -- not religion!"

"Yes, let's just nix the word 'religion'" a third suggested, "and call what you are describing, 'thought.'"

I sighed. "Ok, we can nix the word, and replace it with a new one, but then people will seize onto the power of whatever new word we choose and abuse that one too. So we'll change it again. And again. And what happens every time we do that? We lose our history. We make a break from the earlier, nobler, original meanings of the words. In fact," I went on, "this tragedy has already happened -- and your inability to read the nobler meanings of these words when you are reading these philosophers demonstrates this tragedy. Why should we let the abusers of the language have the power to blind us to the nobler meanings? Why should we let the abusers of the language cut us off from really understanding the wisdom that history can teach us? Why should we be complicit in giving them this power?"

Class, unfortunately, was now over, but the students were buzzing as they left, bewildered, intrigued, and in some cases maybe even outraged. This is a lot harder than I would have thought!

Next incident: I go to a gospel concert. It is an amazing event. The singers represent many forms of diversity: not only black and white, but Native American and Asian. Young and old. Mentally handicapped, mentally ill, and highly functioning, highly successful. All sexual orientations. (I know all of this because I know many of the people.) All of these people are smiling and singing together. Their affection for each other is obvious. The message is love, freedom, and radical acceptance of each other. "Now that's Christianity!" I find myself thinking, wishing my Modern Philosophy students were there, and my peace studies students, but, sadly, none of them are there, except one peace studies student in the choir.

But even if they were there, it is doubtful that they would get it...

As I depart, I hear some murmuring from some of my friends and colleagues in the audience. "I liked the music, but I had a hard time with the words."

I considered the words again. Then I realized what was going on. And I was astonished. How could English professors, and liberal pastors, not be able to grasp the intended meanings of these words?

Looking again at specific phrases, I realized that the only way they could be offended was to read "God" as "human oppressive power," instead of reading "God" as "goodness" or "love." Why do they insist on doing this?

For example, one phrase from one song was "God is mighty."

Yes, "Human oppressive power is mighty" is problematic.

But, "Love is mighty"? "Goodness is mighty"? Don't these phrases inspire hope, and give strength in times of struggle?

Or: "Order my steps in your word."

Yes, "Order my steps in submission to human oppressive power" would be ridiculous, but look where this song comes from: descendants of slaves! Are they going to be meaning this? Of course not! Simple hermeneutics then indicates that there must be something wrong with this interpretation!

So, try this instead: "Order my steps along the path of love," or "Order my steps on the path of goodness." Now the meaning changes. It's about holding strong in real love, because love is hard. It's about looking for strength not to fall into the temptations of hatred, bitterness, and despair.

How can smart, thoughtful people not get this?! Why do they cling so tightly to a negative image of God, equating God with the worst of human oppressive power?

Third incident (this from a few years back, in another class): I ask the class which concept is supposed to be tied most essentially to God. They offer all sorts of suggestions, some promising, others alarming, but never mention the one I was thinking of, so I finally offer it myself: "goodness."

The class is stunned. "What does 'goodness' have to do with 'God'?" one asks, genuinely confused.

This student's image of God was that of a stern supernatural power, insisting that we play by a hidden book of rules: rules not at all easy even to find, and when you do, almost impossible to follow -- cutting against all that we find natural, enjoyable, meaningful. Unless we can figure this out, and live in the constant pain and suffering of this "obedience," we will suffer the divine punishment of going to hell.

Once I realize that that is what some (many) students think God is, I understand why they call themselves atheists! When I try to tell them this is not what everyone means by God, they think I am just making that up.

Final incident: I recently applied for a grant to work on my book project of reconciling science and religion, but didn't get the grant. One of the reviewer's comments said, in effect, that "religion is on its way out. Such a project is irrelevant." Most of the others reflected a similar sentiment, if not so directly. I wondered what planet they were living on. Meanwhile, at Harvard, someone recently proposed instituting a religion requirement because it is so important to have a basic understanding of world religions in order to understand events in the world, but this proposal was cut down on the grounds that it is not the role of universities to teach "faith" -- universities are to teach "reason." Not only does that argument rely on really problematic misunderstandings of "faith" and "reason," but it totally misconstrues the intended purpose of the requirement! The requirement is not to indoctrinate into faith, but just to give students a working sociological and cultural understanding of world religions in order to understand, for example, the difference between Sunni and Shia Islam.

So, no wonder I am having so much trouble. I had thought that the academic world was opening up to a reconsideration of religion, even a reclamation of a more sophisticated view of religion than the highly problematic caricatures offered by the media. This may be so, but the change is not happening easily or quickly.

So I understand why I am having the difficulties I do have.

But I am sad about this.


  1. It seems . . . that most of your students have never communicated with God. They have formed their opinions about God from the actions of others.

  2. "Unless we can figure this out, and live in the constant pain and suffering of this "obedience," we will suffer the divine punishment of going to hell."

    It's convenient to call the Godconcept described above "The Gotcha God." Utterly different, of course, from God.

    But most humans we know have in fact been placed in a condition of alienation from the God who does exist (the one who 'exists' us!) And until [which I admit is some improvement on 'unless'] we can come somehow to know and trust God, we suffer the consequences of recurring pain and suffering, some of which goes far beyond anything you or I could call 'good.' The actuality, though not a Gotcha God, is still that we live at the mercy of an overwhelmingly powerful reality--which even though it imposes no needless suffering, even sometimes lets us have what we ask for, still doesn't seem as tame a pussycat as I think I'd like... Then again, who am I to imagine I know what's good for me?--just because I'm too inclined to fear I won't like it?

  3. How can smart people not "get" this? Years of cultural pressure to equate a narrow, rigid, actually pretty ludicrous concept of "God" with control, authority, demands for servility, hatred of minorities, etc. I grew up in the UK, where religious extremism is pretty rare, and went to a mainstream Anglican church, where it was all very middle of the road and the vicar talked up compassion and decency. Still, the language of the Creed ("We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs from under Thy table...") and the language of hymns ("Onwards Christian soldiers, marching as to war...") and the use of the shepherd-flock analogy in a culture in which sheep are seen as stupid and senseless followers all combine to create a powerful effect on the unconscious. And then there is the insistence on either believing in this narrow version of "God" or not believing at all or being deluded.

    I spent years knowing very well that I revered Jesus, and that religion comes in many flavours - any of which can be abusive or liberating - and reading around the Bible. In the end, it has been 25 years as a Pagan who has thoroughly enjoyed reading around the Bible that has broken most of the powerful unconscious links between the concept of "God" with a capital G and the concept of a monolithic "Christianity". It has provided multiple models of deity, the prototypes for almost all the Jesus stories, the historical context for the evolution of modern Christianities. It has taken work to get to the point where I can appreciate the concept of "God with a capital G" without feeling excluded, dislocated, even repelled.

    Now, I'm no genius. I am pretty clever, though, and much given to trying to understand religious beliefs and interact with the Divine in a healthy way. I've always pointed out the difference between religion as a socio-political institution and as a lived faith. Yet it's taken all this work over 25 years to let go of the imagery planted in my unconscious throughout my childhood of an angry, vengeful, capricious deity.

    Don't be too hard on your students. It's not willfulness so much as their brains doing what they've been wired up to do all without knowing it. Thankfully, brains are plastic and neurons can be wired together or apart. You're tinkering with their wiring, and that's good.

  4. I found my way to this essay this morning by way of Johan Maurer’s link. It’s quite a fascinating story you tell!

    You do not mention the phenomenon of people who associate Christianity with human oppressive power, but do not associate all other religions with it. I’ve noticed that a lot of “liberal Quakers” think that way, however.

    In any case, I like the way you are approaching this prejudice in your classes.

    Thank you!

  5. Thanks, all, for your comments!

    Rick - Yes, and/or, they may have had experiences, yet refuse to connect them with "God."

    Forrest - I really appreciate what you say. I agree that relationship with God really helps us with many forms of suffering, but that, even so, the life of faith has its own challenges! I handle these matters very carefully in public discussions because, unless conversing with people already acknowledging faith, talking about the challenges of faith can very easily put people off. They can quickly misunderstand.

    Karen - yes, I take heed of your advice not to be too hard on my students. My strong feelings may have come out in this posting, but I have a very good relationship with my students -- they would not be so honest with me if this were not the case! Yes, I am intensely striving with them, but they appreciate this challenge. After I wrote the posting, I then heard from several students that they had regarded that a "great class" and many continued talking about it at lunch after class.

    Marshall - yes, I see what you are saying. In my class, "Buddhism" is always good, and commands respect. As we discussed Leibniz's "Monadology" this week, several students said with great approval, "This is very Buddhist"! Amazed yet again, I found myself thinking, "what a strange world we live in!"

  6. ...And that is interesting, Friend CS, given that Buddhism has a long history of participation in warfare and, in China and Japan, of supporting the suppression of newer religions.

  7. Very, very, interesting.

    Thank you.

  8. The trickiest questions in modern philosophy, i.e. those with which I have struggled most for decades, are those that involve the body/mind (or body/soul) connection.

    Does the thinking-stuff that is "me" really interact with the material-stuff that the rest of the world sees and knows as me? If not, how can the two "Mes" be said to be one? Yet if they do interact, how is that possible? It seems to "me" that the two are so very different that it is hard to get a grasp on this.

    You say you were recently teaching Leibniz. He (if I remember my college years at all) had a drastic solution to that problem -- preestablished harmony. Mind and body only seem to interact, as two trains running on parallel tracks at the same (predetermined) speed might seem to be moving deliberately in concert.

    This calls for a rather distinctive conception of God, one at odds with much of the revelation offered to each of the "peoples of the book," and it all seems a very high price to pay for the resolution of the mind/body muddle.

    Just my two cents.

  9. Yes, and it's even stranger than that! Leibniz finds the idea of "matter" difficult, in part because you can subdivide it (at least conceptually) infinitely. So as he considers whether there is anything that reaches a limit in how far it can be subdivided, he realizes that there is! Consciousness itself! So, instead of saying that everything is ultimately made up of matter, he says everything is ultimately made up of "monads," or points of consciousness. These are the true "indivisible" particles.

    Then he calls upon "pre-established harmony" to explain how the unfolding-from-within developmental trajectories of all of these monads are able to harmoniously relate to each other.

    It is God who is responsible for the pre-established harmony. God, through omniscience, is able to know how all of the monads will develop and ensures that they do so harmoniously.

    So, yes, I agree that this is a strange theory!

    Leibniz insisted that his theory was still compatible with free will, and I'm still trying to understand this, but must admit that I'm finding it difficult...

    Personally, I find Berkeley's view more promising. He too argues against "matter," but in a different way. He avoids the problems of matter/spirit dualism by claiming that only spiritual substance is real. (We are all ideas in the mind of God.) In my interpretation of Berkeley here, matter is just the form that spirit temporarily takes in this kind of life. Matter is not real in and of itself. So there is not a problem with how spirit resides in matter. It is just spirit that is real.

    I also think that Berkeley's view actually anticipates the current scientific view that matter and energy are interchangeable, which can be interpreted as implying that matter is just "frozen energy": not literally frozen, but structured in a particular way (and only temporarily so, since all matter could be converted back into pure energy).

    I myself am inclined to combine these views and say: spirit is real, and takes the form of matter/energy in this life.

  10. CS, Belatedly, thank you for this interesting post.

    Most of the students and probably the academics too are reacting to a particular, very visible form of Christianity in the U.S. As a counterpoint, I highly recommend Brian McLaren's newest book, "A New Kind of Christianity," for his succinct analysis of the Greco-Roman influence on Christianity.

    Forrest put it this way: "It's convenient to call the Godconcept described above 'The Gotcha God.'"

    McLaren calls this concept of God "Theos." It derives from a Greco-Roman, neo-Platonic concept of the first substance, that which is perfect, and from which we have fallen, and with whom we must be reconciled back into perfection (through proper faith in Christ, as defined by one's particular denomination) -- or else punished eternally.

    Even McLaren, a dedicated Christian evangelist, says he'd rather be an atheist than believe in this God.

    I see Theos, then, as what "non-Theist" people are reacting against, rather than the God of liberation, forgiveness, and reconciliation.

    McLaren has a very helpful analysis of the place of Jesus as a result of the Hebraic tradition (and not just the forerunner of the Protestant Reformation!), and how very different God is from Theos.