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.
5 years ago