Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Gods damn it!

Three umpires met for a drink. The first was a rookie, the second was in the middle of his career, and the third had been calling games for forty years. They chewed the fat for awhile, telling stories about their favorite moments behind the plate. After awhile the topic shifted to calling balls and strikes.

The first umpire, confident in the accuracy of his eye, said, "There's balls and there's strikes, and I call them like they is."

The second umpire, knowing from experience that his perception was occasionally off, said, "You're partly right, there's balls and there's strikes, but I call 'em like I see 'em."

The third umpire chuckled, sipped his whiskey, and said, "You're both wrong. There's balls and there's strikes, but they ain't nothin' until I call 'em."

I first heard this story 25 years ago, as part of a lecture series at the University of Manchester by Schubert M. Ogden. The title of the series was "Is There One True God, Or Are There Many?" I took a notebook to the lectures, but every time, halfway through the lecture I'd give up on taking notes. I'd known this about Ogden going into the lectures. I'd taken systematic theology from him at Perkins School of Theology, and knew that his lectures were challengingly intricate, as was his writing: you almost needed to diagram his sentences to understand them. Add to that the passion and speed of his delivery, which had an evangelical fervor not often found in progressive theologians (he straddle the disciplines of both process and liberation theology), and you can understand why note-taking was a futile exercise. My then-wife and fellow Perkins student went up with me to greet him after the first lecture. He remembered having us in class, though he couldn't remember our names (to his credit, it was a big class, and he only taught one semester of it). I told him about the impossibility of taking notes from his lecture, and he chuckled: "Yeah, I expect to lose people at about that point in my lectures; hopefully I get them back by the end."

He did get me back by the end. In fact, those lectures set me on the road to ambivalence toward, and ultimate rejection of, confessional religion (i.e., religion based on a creed, a required set of beliefs that define whether one is saved or not). And now I'm going to attempt to summarize these lectures that defied my ability to take notes in just a couple of paragraphs. Fasten your seat belts; it could be a bumpy ride.

The first approach of the lectures was, as is often the case in scholarly writings, a review and rejection of competing positions for one reason or another--though in every case, Ogden was careful (painstakingly, sentence-diagram-necessitatingly careful) to point out that religion itself is, by its very nature, subjective, that truth claims about a faith can only be made from within that faith. It is utterly ludicrous to claim Truth for a faith that one does not hold. Similarly, as he went on to demonstrate, it is highly problematic to reject truth claims made by a faith from the outside of that faith--unless those claims negate the Truth of one's own faith.

The truth claims Ogden made, from his own perspective as a process theologian, were that faith is a choice, and that the only faith choice he could make would be in a God who would not categorically condemn any human being simply on the basis of not holding the correct set of beliefs, however deluded they might be. Thus, you could choose to believe in the flying spaghetti monster; and if God sent you to hell for that, that would not be a God worth believing in. For God to be worthy of belief (and worthiness is the root of "worship," praise of God's goodness), God must be all-loving, all-accepting, no matter what other beliefs God must tolerate other people holding.

Now comes the leap that I know I can't do justice: if I can believe that there is a true God, worthy of belief by offering salvation to all, regardless of their own beliefs or lack of beliefs, then I must acknowledge that there can, in fact, be other true gods. Interfaith dialogue is the basis for this statement. To enter into dialogue with a person of another faith, one must take the following positions: 1) I believe my own faith is true. 2) You believe your own faith is true. 3) I am open to being convinced that you have it right, and I have it wrong, if 4) you are similarly open to being convinced that I have it right, and you have it wrong. 5) We are both open to being changed by this dialogue. (I'm probably oversimplifying this dynamic, doing it from memory, but I believe that's the gist of it.)

Schubert Ogden's faith was informed by just such dialogue--in his case with Buddhism.

All of this came under the critical eye of the anecdote with which I started this post, one I remember him using to great effect, and which I have reconstructed using several internet sources. The point of this story is an essential philosophical truth: we cannot know the objective reality of anything, only its existential reality to each of us as an observer interacting with it and experiencing it through our limited senses, as interpreted by our brains. The experienced umpire understands this, and knows that how he sees a pitch may not be the reality of that pitch, but that his word is final in the matter.  The further, meta-truth expressed by the old veteran umpire takes it to the level of faith: since there is no pitch until he calls it, he in effect creates the reality around which the game revolves. The path the ball actually traveled through space and either through or around the strike zone is irrelevant; he speaks the Word, and then, only then, the reality of the pitch comes into existence.

That is how I can exist in a pluralistic world, a world populated by so many religions making competing truth claims. In fact, it is how I can exist within a pluralistic religion, for there are many Christian truth claims that conflict with those of my own personal belief system. There are many who call themselves Christian who would say I am not a Christian, and quite frankly, I have a hard time these days claiming the title for myself. Some of my earliest posts to this blog have been about my struggles with the faith that gave birth to me, particularly with respect to its anti-Jewish teachings.

But this essay is not a critique of Christianity. It is, rather, an exploration of the existential reality of faith, and whether one can believe that conflicting faiths also may be true. That may seem like a recipe for a cognitive migraine, but I do not view ambivalence as something to be avoided. (For more on ambivalence, take a look at my post from earlier this morning.) In fact, I personally believe that it's an act of extreme hubris to think the Cosmos can be contained by any one theology or philosophy--especially when one takes into account the likelihood of multiple universes, each with its own version of objective reality, its own natural laws, its own version of how all things come into being.

I was so stimulated by these lectures--and, I will admit, daunted by the sheer power of Schubert Ogden's dedication to intellectual rigor--that, back at Perkins, I took a seminar from him my final semester. I did feel like I had something to prove--he'd given me a low grade on my Credo, the personal systematic theology paper every second-year student had to write--but mostly I wanted to immerse myself in the logical torrent of his mind. In that seminar, I heard this story, paraphrased from memory, which illustrated the difference between factual history and Historical Truth:

Every election, I drive people to the polls. In 1968, I picked up an elderly African-American woman who was going to vote for the first time. One the way, we talked about a number of things, including the assassination of John F. Kennedy, which had happened right here in Dallas. I asked her why she was voting, knowing that her vote would probably not make a difference in the outcome of the election. She replied, "If that man could die for our country, the least I can do is vote for it."

There it was, an act that took an objective factual event and transformed it, giving it mythical, existential power. The purpose of the illustration was to disabuse us of the notion that one had to literally believe in the resurrection of Jesus in order to be a Christian; that, in fact, the question should not be the literal "Who was the historical Jesus?" so much as "Who is Jesus to me?" There is no way short of the invention of a time machine to arrive at the literal historical truth of that event. What reality it has lies in its power to change lives now.

This is the power of religion, its reality and its Truth. To the extent that any religion shapes the actions of its believers, who in turn shape the reality of the world around them and alter the course of history, that religion is real and true.

Mind you, much of that reality has been harsh, cruel, even evil. Countless millions have been slaughtered in the name of every god, including our own; that is cold, objective historical fact. I think Schubert Ogden would argue on this point that such actions are demonstrations of the invalidity of those religions' truth claims, at least to the extent that they evince belief in a bloodthirsty God. But that's not the point of this particular essay, which is really about this question, which I will leave you with to worry about and someday answer for yourself:

Given that, through the actions of their adherents, religions do factually and significantly alter the world in which they exist, does it even matter whether they are founded on historical truth?

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