Friday, February 10, 2006

The Search for Religious Truth

People don't realize religion is never a search for truth. Religion is a search for security. Now, we have theological enterprises that try to shape truth. But the bedrock of our religion is a search for security. And that comes out of the very dawning of self-consciousness. --Bishop John Shelby Spong


Religion, being primarily theoretical rather than empirical, generally raises more questions than answers. This in itself is perfectly okay -- questions can be valuable tools to understanding. The problem is twofold: (1) there is no sure-fire method for testing candidate answers, and (2) people aren't satisfied with questions; they want answers.

It's interesting to see the various ways different religions (and other non-empirical thought systems like many branches of philosophy) go about satisfying the thirst for answers.

Biblical "Literalists"

Philosophy is questions that may never be answered. Religion is answers that may never be questioned. --Unknown.
First, you have the Biblical literalists who, uncomfortable with the fact that no text can be completely unambiguous, pretend that the Bible always says exactly what it means and no more. The problem they face is that the Bible is at times ambiguous, self-contradictory, or in defiance of the facts. Literalists generally either ignore such problems or develop convoluted apologetics to explain them away.

People Followers

[Many of my students] act like children and experience religion like children. This is why they accept all types of fanaticism and superstition. --Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik
Others try to resolve the problem by finding a person and treating every word he utters as "the gospel truth." The biggest such group are Catholics who have made their Pope infallible. Also included in this category are various Hasidic groups as well as most cults.

Tradition Followers

Traditionalists are pessimists about the future and optimists about the past. --Lewis Mumford
Many people believe that weight should be given to authority figures of the past. As a bonus, there are always many authority figures to choose from, so this neatly overcomes the problem of self-contradiction. If Rabbi Hillel's students disagreed with Rabbi Shamai's students, they can accept both traditions as valid and just pick one to run with. Obviously a great many Orthodox Jews take this path, leading to a great diversity of opinions and practices. As they say, "Two Jews, three opinions." However, even the richest of traditions can't contain answers for all questions (particularly new ones) so people in this camp must be in other ones as well.

Personal Truth Followers

With the rise of the self in the West, combined with the advent of widespread literacy and the move away from the Catholic Church, many people have turned inward for answers. Some believe that they can speak directly with God via intuition (and sometimes voices in their heads, presumably) and others are comfortable with interpreting the various holy texts for themselves. Many of these people take another practical approach, picking and choosing cafeteria-style aspects of various religions and philosophies which resonate with them.

Theologians

And Jesus said unto them, "And whom do you say that I am?"

They replied, "You are the eschatological manifestation of the ground of our being, the ontological foundation of the context of our very selfhood revealed."

And Jesus replied, "What?" --Unknown
Theologians are much like the literalists in that they engage in tortured apologetics. However, being better educated, they can usually arrive at religious philosophies which are unfalsifiable. They will generally redefine terms so that they are completely at odds with the common understanding of them. This last group is perhaps the least objectionable of contemporary religious thinkers since they keep working until their beliefs are at least internally consistent and usually consistent with the world as well. However, their explanations are unsatisfying to the (fictional, of course) objective observer since they violate Occam's razor. Moreover, considering themselves members of their religion rather than members of a distinct one provides cover for all the believers in the other groups. Many a lay-person will take pride in the fact that a religious theologian is nominally of the same religion, but more often than not, the only similarity is in the label. In fact, if some of these theologians spoke their true views to the people, they would likely be kicked out of their communities.

Skeptics

Skeptics exist within religious traditions as well as with atheism and agnosticism. Religious skeptics are content to live without some answers, but either believe that the answers they do have are sufficient to act upon or simply choose to be religious in the absence of evidence.

Conclusion

In a recent thread, Orthoprax told me, "If Judaism were the ideological 'search for God' rather than a dogmatic assertion of the same, it could much more easily retain people like you, I think." I think that this is correct and, moreover, that such a Judaism would be a much more meaningful and thoughtful religion. However, it would also be much smaller and would run the risk of dying out within a few generations.

I believe that we must always choose to accept uncertainty over false truths and that we should encourage others to do the same. We must teach people that it's okay not to know the answer to every question and that saying "I don't know" is preferable to saying "I know" when they don't.

44 comments:

Sadie Lou said...

and others are comfortable with interpreting the various holy texts for themselves. Many of these people take another practical approach, picking and choosing cafeteria-style aspects of various religions and philosophies which resonate with them.

The Bible tells us that Christians receive the Holy Spirit to dwell within them and it's this new spiritual nature that allows our hearts to be open to the word of God vs. a non believer that picks up the Bible and reads it with a skeptics eye and without prayerful intent or context of the scritptures themselves.
The picking and choosing, as you put it is valuable but also dangerous. If the particular church I am attending starts preaching something that goes against scripture, it's my job to receive it or question it.
The dangerous aspect to picking and choosing is doing so to fit a lifestyle that doesn't reflect righteous living.
You can justify a great deal just by ignoring certain scriptures and twisting others. For instance: Many Christian leave out the writings of Paul because he says some radical things--but that isn't the right way to handle teachings that are uncomfortable. The right thing to do is research and ask questions until you are satisfied.
There are many scritptures that I still do not feel satisfied in my knowledge of them.

B. Spinoza said...

what about rationally religious? If you want to know an example of such a person, read Spinoza's Ethics.

Chana said...

I believe that we must always choose to accept uncertainty over false truths and that we should encourage others to do the same. We must teach people that it's okay not to know the answer to every question and that saying "I don't know" is preferable to saying "I know" when they don't.

Exactly what I think, and one of the major problems I had with or at Templars. Teachers couldn't admit they didn't know something. Instead, they'd use the "Accept, don't question" approach, or try to come up with some answer from the top of the head. (By the way, that's okay, so long as you actually go home and try to really answer the question later.)

I like your categories, but I don't think I seem to fit into them. Out of curiousity, how would you classify me?

Esther said...

What do we do with the following passages from the bible?

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 tells us that disobedient children ought to be stoned to death.

1 Timothy 2:15 says women who do not have children will burn in hell.

According to Leviticus 21:9
premarital sex is punishable by burning the woman alive.

I could go on.

I truly believe that the world would be a better place if more people adopted a skeptical stance toward the bible, (and the koran, for that matter).

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

Esther, we may need to rely on those bible passages when the world is officially overpopulated.

Foilwoman said...

BEAJ: Or just when someone (in charge) is in a very bad mood.

Jack's Shack said...

I don't think we ever reach a place where we can say that we know everything.

For that matter I am not sure that I want to get there. I rather like the idea of always searching for more answers.

Bloggerfield said...

I have been searching for years. By the time I finished reading serious books, I had more questions than when I began. I just finished The Golden Fleece Found by Basil Hill. This guy frightens me. I would write down my questions and by the next page he would have the answers. I would document and sure enough he would do it again. So I gave a friend the book to read and he told me the same thing happened to him. Now he won't return the book; I have to get another one because I need to read it a second time. This book uses a three strand approach to analayses. I actually came up with a formula to figure out how he did it. Let us say that prophecy without history is mystery. So, by lining up prophecies with historical fulfillment, hundreds of mysteries become definable.
For the first time I learned that the Torah is a prophetic code book. With an understanding of her codes, you can vet just about any dogma. Another major find: the blueprint of Solomon's Temple opens up keys to higher degrees of wisdom. My conclusion after reading this book is that many people tried to explain God. This book releases numerous prophetic codes that a super intelligent Architect of the Universe left us. I am almost convinced that this being did not want us to be guessing as to what is truth. Question: Did antagonists deliberately conceal this knowledge for so long?

Anonymous said...

If you are eligible to receive funds for evolutionary research, you would hope that the Universe just happened into being.

Why did they destroy such a wealth of knowledge by burning the world's biggest libraries? By destroying the evidence, sone devious minded people hoped to conceal certain truths?

Let us see if God did not forsee that and will reveal his back-up data. It has to happen to prove that the so-called wisdom of the world is foolishness to Him.

Random said...

You could probably put me down as a sceptic by your definition, though I think I'd prefer "pragmatist" as a label myself...

Anonymous - what on earth are you talking about? Who are "they" (though I suspect I can guess) and what libraries are these you have in mind?

Jewish Atheist said...

Spinoza: what about rationally religious?

That would probably fall under religious skeptic.


Chana: I like your categories, but I don't think I seem to fit into them. Out of curiousity, how would you classify me?

That's a tough question. I'm not sure I know you well enough to be sure. You definitely have some skepticism and, obviously, some traditionalism. I haven't seen how you reconcile your conception of God with the more anthropomorphic God of the Torah, so I'm not sure if you fall into the theologian's camp as well. The other camp you might fall into is one I left out -- those who don't pursue avenues of inquiry which may rock their foundations. I'm not saying you definitely fall into this category, but I don't know how much you've really questioned the basics: Torah authorship, God's existence, Rabbinic authority, etc.


Esther: I truly believe that the world would be a better place if more people adopted a skeptical stance toward the bible, (and the koran, for that matter).

I very much agree. It seems like most believers focus on the parts they agree with, taking them as literally as is convenient.


Bloggerfield and Anonymous:

I think we may be so far apart that we'll never understand each other's perspective. Frankly, the beliefs you're hinting at seem absurd to me.

Sadie Lou said...

I like how you skipped Random and myself in your resonse.
;)

Sadie Lou said...

*response

Jewish Atheist said...

Sadie Lou,

You weren't the only ones I skipped; I just didn't have much to respond. :)

It seemed to me that your comment didn't really address the meat of the post. You talked in passing about the skeptics and the pickers-and-choosers, but you didn't get to the heart of the issue of how you resolve the issue of questions vs. answers. I thought that perhaps your discussion of the Holy Spirit dwelling within puts you in the camp of Personal Truth Followers, being that you would believe that you personally (with the Holy Spirit) could interpret the Scripture yourself, but you didn't spell this out and I'm not sure that you'd agree with that idea.

I really enjoy your perspective on my blog, but sometimes it's hard for me to figure out if you're trying to address the post or just riffing off of some ideas contained within it.

As for Random's comment, it didn't really require a response, although I guess I could have replied that "pragmatist" could apply to several of the groups.

Ben Avuyah said...

Don't forget the last category, the heretic, we have accepted religion as false, but stick around as a thorn in it's side, always ready to bring the rhetoric down by sowing a few seeds of doubt. Actually, I suppose skeptic covers it.

This was a very interesting post, but I sometimes wonder if the most fruitful conversations are beyond our capacity. Reading the comment by anonymous in contrast to your post makes me wonder if communication is possible at all with those whose view points are so far askew.

Jewish Atheist said...

Ben Avuyah,

I doubt Anonymous and I could ever understand each other, but those of us without such an enormous gulf between us undoubtedly can.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

Good list. I think I'm usually a skeptic but sometimes I feel the inclination to try some "Theologian"-type of ideas as well as the "Personal Truth"-type. Though when I do that I'm skeptical of my own ideas, as I think I ought to be.

And honestly, sometimes I'll even go the "Traditionalist" route, more often for practical Halachic concerns (though occassionlly for moral concerns as well) than for concerns of belief. But in those terms I tend to respect tradition rather than seeing it as a paramount authority.

"I think that this is correct and, moreover, that such a Judaism would be a much more meaningful and thoughtful religion. However, it would also be much smaller and would run the risk of dying out within a few generations."

Or perhaps within the wide field of Judaism there is room for the thoughtful who wish to retain membership while still allowing the "child-like" individuals from feeling excluded, and vice versa.

Jewish Atheist said...

Good comment, Orthoprax. And kudos for being so self-aware. :)

Or perhaps within the wide field of Judaism there is room for the thoughtful who wish to retain membership while still allowing the "child-like" individuals from feeling excluded, and vice versa.

I've been talking about that in the comments over at Chana's place. I think there are probably a lot of Rabbis who believe this is the way to go. It just seems too paternalistic or something to me. Is it that much better that people have a fake or simplistic Judaism than they leave Orthodoxy?

Maybe according to Judaism it is. It was originally a national religion rather than a strictly theological one. It's largely a religion of laws rather than beliefs, of course.

Sadie Lou said...

Well, I kind of took what you said under "Personal Truth" and tried to clarify a few things for you because some of what you said was accurate and some of what you said needs a Christian perspective--that's why I elaborated on a couple of your points.
I would classify myself as a "Personal Truth" combined with "Skeptic" combined with "Literalist" combined with Random's title "Pragmatist". *laughing* If that's at all possible without being contradictory.
I found myself relating to many of your "definitions" for each type.

How I resolve questions and answers is different than anything you have here, really. My husband and I belong to a church that I would say most of the people that attend are really into doctrine and theology.
Our men's study has turned into a "Cigar Night" where the men gather outdoors and talk doctrine--sorting things out. Then my husband comes home and we discuss stuff for hours. I would never say that "I know everything." I don't.
I'm constantly working my salvation out with fear and trembling.
:)

Okee said...

JA- I really enjoy reading your posts, but I guess it's about time for me to wonder why. I've never heard a question of Judaism that made me question my religion. (Of course, that doesn't mean I don't try to find out the answer.) No, I believe with full belief. I do, though, enjoy hearing questions/complaints/issue with Torah because it keeps me thiinking. Belief should be a constant and strenuous exercise.
I learned in some amazing schools in Israel, where instead of shying away from the most terrible of questions, we attacked them with excitement and wonder and truth. Scientific, ethical, practical, sociological -all areas of study were researched to decipher the truth and beauty of Torah. As a result, I not only believe, but I know I will believe forever, live always for Torah and G-d's word.
So maybe this forum isn't for me, but not because I'm afraid of the questions. But I think some of those whose posts I've read here might be afraid that, yes, there are answers.

Orthoprax said...

Okee,

"So maybe this forum isn't for me, but not because I'm afraid of the questions."

I feel like quoting Yoda here, but I'll refrain.

Here's a question that I think is effective in determining one's Jewish credulity level. Do you really believe that a global flood, ala the story of Noah's Ark, was an actual historical event?

Jewish Atheist said...

Okee Jew,

Feel free to post answers! I want to know the truth, regardless of which way it goes.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"Is it that much better that people have a fake or simplistic Judaism than they leave Orthodoxy?"

Judaism is, in a minimalist sense, the religion of the Jews. It is ours and ours to make with it what we see fit. Granted, what was given to us from past generations is an important factor, but thinking or acting differently from the past does not make it fake. It may not be Orthodoxy, but it's still full-fledged Judaism.

dbs said...

I read an interview with the president of the Atheist Society of New York. He said something along these lines: “We don’t want members who don’t believe in god, we want members who have rationally determined that there is no god.” Perfect, the dogmatic atheist.

As for me, I don’t know if there is a god (or a spiritual force, etc.), but if there is, I do know for sure that he couldn’t care less whether I eat shellfish.

I wish that more people gave some thought to the first quote. Our beliefs are emotional as well as rational. (This, by the way, is one of Spinoza’s tenets.) We can only trust our reasoning to the extent that we can fathom our feelings.

(This is probably the category which fits Chana, she is feeling her way, using her mind, weighing her feelings, finding what works.)

Mis-nagid said...

“We don’t want members who don’t believe in god, we want members who have rationally determined that there is no god.”

Well, that excludes me.

BTW, Bishop Spong rocks. If you haven't already, go read Rescuing the Bible from Fundamentalism.

Chana said...

So I shall be an Emotional-Thoughtful mix. *smile*


This is an interesting discussion. I am enjoying observing the interplay. You've also given me some ideas that I must go mull over. I am off and away, then!

david said...

I'm one of those kinds of Jews that accepts uncertainty and fights false truths. At least, I try to be. Isn't that what the very word "Israel" means? Aren't we supposed to struggle with God, the ideas of God, the pseudo-Divine proscriptions leveled on us by dogmatist bureaucrats? Aren't we supposed to contend with **each other**?

dbs said...

Chana,

Well, I have a far more complex and interesting theory of you (complementary, of course). In any case, I think that you’re a person who almost always fits solidly in the “None of the Above” category.:)

B. Spinoza said...

>Feel free to post answers! I want to know the truth, regardless of which way it goes.

The answer is 42, but the problem is that you don't understand the question

B. Spinoza said...

>Spinoza: what about rationally religious?

>That would probably fall under religious skeptic.

I don't consider myself a skeptic because a skeptic starts off from the position of doubt, while I like to think that I can know and understand fully. I guess you can call me a gnostic (not to be confused with agnostic) rather than a skeptic

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

I just had an orthodox Jew just IM me and he showed me this video to prove that science knows nothing, that Hawkings believes in God, and therefore the earth could be 6000 years old and evolution could be wrong:

It is in Hebrew with English subtitles:

http://www.shofar.net/products/video/Madanim/madanim128k300x240.wmv

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

OK, I had to go to tiny url:

http://tinyurl.com/bkecu

Conclusion, they lie about what scientists say, present half truths, and then conclude that because science doesn't have all the answers, God must exist.

CyberKitten said...

BEAJ said: they lie about what scientists say, present half truths, and then conclude that because science doesn't have all the answers, God must exist.

The usual then..........? [grin]

The Jewish Freak said...

JA: The last paragraph of your post was the best. All people of all faiths an belief systems should make this choice.

Okee said...

orthoprax-- "Do you really believe that a global flood, ala the story of Noah's Ark, was an actual historical event?"
The example of the Flood, standing in for all miraculous, world-affecting events of the Bible, is something that I do believe in. I believe that everything in the Written Torah happened. It's not so hard to believe when I already believe in an Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omniscient G-d.

JA--any "answer" takes time, sensitivity, and checking my memory in order to write. I'll do my best!

Orthoprax said...

Okee,

"It's not so hard to believe when I already believe in an Omnipotent, Omnipresent, Omniscient G-d."

You do this while acknowledging the historical, archeological, geological, etc data that make belief in a global flood extremely untenable from a rational perspective? Essentially, what I'm asking here is, do you believe on faith alone or do you think your belief stands on rational, evidential grounds?

Jack's Shack said...

All too often we see people demanding either/or answers. The world is not black and white.

I don't understand why some people think that you cannot believe and G-d and science.

Not pointing any fingers at anyone here, just commenting.

BaconEating AtheistJew said...

Jack, you can believe in God and science.

In fact 40-50% of scientists believe in God according to stats I've seen.

The problem is that almost half the Americans (45%) for example, will dismiss science because it conflicts with their religious beliefs. And these people are pushing their agenda into science classes for example.

Science and religion can be mutually exclusive as long as you don't call evolution and an ancient universe bunk.

Okee said...

I agree with Jack.
The world is SO gray...

Orthoprax -for further clarification, my personal belief in the Torah, including the case of the flood, is secondary (in the sense that must follow) to my belief in G-d. And that belief arises from scientific, rational, intellectual sources, including life experience and spiritual/emotional sensations. Scientific evidence contradicting a recorded historical even doesn't shake me, because my belief in an Omnipotent G-d allows for variations in His creation. My belief remains fixed even as the "truths" of science fluctuate. Is that clearer?

Orthoprax said...

Okee,

"Is that clearer?"

Not really. From what I see, you use science when it helps your beliefs "and that belief arises from scientific, rational, intellectual sources..." but give it no mind when it contradicts yor beliefs "even as the 'truths' of science fluctuate."

That doesn't strike you as inconsistent?

Okee said...

No, orthoprax. I hate it when there's miscommunication. It's probably my fault in not getting my point across well. I'm not inconsistent in regards to my use of science because science itself is not absolute.
My belief in an Omnipotent G-d is supported by science, not dependent upon it. Science alone is not my measuring stick of belief and faith. Belief in G-d serves as a premise for my belief in biblical events such as the Flood. Since I believe that G-d is all-powerful, why is it hypocritical to believe He can change nature/science? Science is always changing, evolving, growing. So I do not consider science to be "contradicting my beliefs" at all.
But thanks for helping me reexamine my explanations.

Orthoprax said...

Okee,

"Science alone is not my measuring stick of belief and faith."

Ok, so what is then?

Okee said...

I've mentioned it- yes, rational thought and investigation, but also emotional reactions and spiritual experiences. My firmest beliefs are results of not only answers but life itself.
Life cannot only be lived by the scientist; it must also be lived by the philosopher and the artist.

If you want actual, specific, and personal explanations, you can email me at theeverydaytraveler@yahoo.com

Bloggfield said...

Response to Torah references February 10th 2006.

Just back from vacation: I missed the daily debates.
Bloggerfield:

To: Esther and Bacon Eating Atheist Jew!
· I followed your debates on Feb 10th 2006 and you listed the following scriptures. What do we do with the following passages from the bible?

Deuteronomy 21:18-21 tells us that disobedient children ought to be stoned to death.

1 Timothy 2:15 says women who do not have children will burn in hell.

According to Leviticus 21:9
premarital sex is punishable by burning the woman alive.

I could go on.

I truly believe that the world would be a better place if more people adopted a skeptical stance toward the bible, (and the koran, for that matter).
By Esther, at 4:31 PM
· Esther, we may need to rely on those bible passages when the world is officially overpopulated.
By Bacon Eating Atheist Jew, at 5:27 PM
Please be advised that the quote from Deuteronomy and the quote from Leviticus are taken straight from the Torah. First of all, the Bible is a Gentile translation of the Tanakh (The Torah plus reports from Hebrew witnesses to the new covenant of Jeremiah 31:31 according to new translated Bible codes. Refer to Brosnin’s Bible code and the newest comprehensive code “The Golden Fleece Found!” Yes, there are linguistic flaws in the Gentile languages. The first segment of the Bible is their translation of the Torah. If God gave strangers permission to sojourn with our Patriarchs when they left Egypt and asked our forefathers to be kind to the strangers among us, we either accept God’s word or we do not. God never forces anyone to obey Him. The uniqueness of Israel lies in the fact that God’s most sacred land and spiritual treasures are there. Our language, feasts, customs and people bear witness to God’s covenant. God told us that our continued disobedience would cause Him to use the Gentiles to bring us to jealousy and apparently it is happening. Remember when only the house of Levi could go in the Holy sanctuary? After all, not only are persons other than Levites going into God’s sanctuary, but Gentiles as well.


Anyway, I have checked at least 10 translations of the Bible and I have vetted those translations to the Tanakh and the passage in Timothy, I was unable to reference Timothy against the Torah. Timothy’s passages are not in the Torah; they are in the Tanakh, which is on sale in Jerusalem and a few bookstores in Brooklyn. Leviticus 21: 9, represents laws given to the Levitical clan—a covenant that was on to their generations--to preserve the chosen Levitical heritage state: “If the daughter of a Levitical priest profane herself by playing the whore, she profaneth her father: she shall be burnt with fire.” In Jeremiah 31:31, God promises a new covenant thusly: “Behold the days come, that I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel, and with the house of Judah: Not according to the covenant that I made with their fathers in the day that I took them out of the land of Egypt, which covenant they brake, although I was an husband to them---saith the Lord…

· Since those passages are straight out of the Torah and the Tanakh, how do you explain your comment: I truly believe that the world would be a better place if more people adopted a skeptical stance toward the bible, (and the koran, for that matter).
As far as your reference to 1st Timothy 2: 15, that passage continues a reference to Eve’s deception. Verse 14, “ But the woman (Eve) being deceived was in transgression. Verse 15, “ Not withstanding she shall be saved in childbearing, if they continue in faith and charity and holiness with sobriety.
It can be argued that those passages give clarity to Exodus 34: 6 and 7 about possible generational traits we could on to our children.

Where does it say anything about women who do not have children shall be burned in hell? I have checked at least 10 versions, including the Tanakh and the Jerusalem Bible and none give your translation.
Bloggerfield.