Monday, January 6, 2009

Religion and the Making of the Modern Mind

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On Sunday I began leading a study of When Faith Meets Reason at The Community Christian Church in Springfield, Missouri (Executive Conference Center, 910 West Battlefield). From 9:15 to 10:15 each Sunday morning we will discuss the personal religious faith of each of the contributors—i.e., how they each have gone about making religious sense for themselves at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The study is free and open to the pubic. What follows here is a brief excerpt adapted from my comments on the introduction to the book made on January 4.

     The general definition of faith is: “a belief that is not based on proof.” A general definition of reason is “the mental powers concerned with forming conclusions, judgments, or inferences.” Or “the power of comprehending, inferring, or thinking in an orderly way.” As a side issue, the definition of superstition is “any blindly accepted belief or notion.” In short, by this definition little separates faith from superstition. One person’s faith is another person’s superstition. Reason, on the other hand, describes a process of critical evaluation demanding proof—and its critical sifting. Reason is very different from faith and superstition.

     In truth, there never has been one “right” way of thinking about God or one way of being a religious human being that excludes all others. And there never has been one way of answering the question “what does God expect of human beings?” The answers to these questions have been manifold—and virtually everyone considers their religion the right way. Well of course that’s true! Who would affirm a wrong religion or serve the wrong God? At the beginning of the Christian period some self appointed zealots tried to limit the responses to these questions (the right way to view the divine and the right way of being religious). In the fourth and fifth centuries they developed a collection of literature, a canon of sacred scripture (i.e., a rule or guide for faith and practice), and exclaimed: this is the very Word of God. And they also approved a creed, which constituted, for them, the right belief for Christians. Their synthesis (canon and creed) adopted near the end of the Roman Empire has endured to the beginning of the twenty-first century as the proper place to begin answering these two questions (What is the nature of the divine and how do I serve God?).

     What has brought about such a state of affairs in the twenty-first century that young men and women raised in Christian homes nourished in the faith of the saints, brought up on the Bible and the creeds, and then set apart for “Christian service” have departed so drastically from “the faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3)? My answer is this: it is due to the making of the modern mind! Ancient human beings—those that wrote the Bible—perceived their reality much differently from modern human beings who have paid attention to the past twenty-one centuries and the changes in human thinking about the world.

     Scholars have “named” some of those historical twists shaping our modern world.

  • The Renaissance, 14th to 17th centuries
  • The Reformation, 16th century
  • The Enlightenment, 17th to 18th centuries

     The developments in these periods are difficult to master as a unit (they, after all, cover five hundred years) but a reader can get a handle on the character of each period by reading through a collection of essays from each period (see the bibliography at the end of my introduction). But, in general and broadly put, thinking in these periods produced the following results:

  • They ended the monopoly on thinking about religion by the medieval church.
  • They fostered a return to the Greek and Roman thinking, the best that the ancient Western world had produced before its collapse just before the beginning of the Christian period.
  • They shifted the focus away from God and a divine world and focused instead on human life and the physical world.
  • They permitted the rise of modern scientific thinking, which led to the critical study of the Bible—the result being the demystification of the Bible and its coming of age as a human product.

     The personal confessions of the contributors to the book When Faith Meets Reason are not driven by an evangelical purpose. They are not trying to convince the reader of anything, but only describing their own spiritual journeys that began in the bosom of “mother church,” and wound through the “ivy covered halls of academia,” to face the liberal critical thinking of the modern world. They offer their experiences as examples of what happens when faith meets reason. Each essay has value as an example of a conclusions reached by someone who has given due consideration to the problems and possibilities of being a religious human being in the modern world. Their personal solutions are not traditionally “Christian,” and yet each contributor maintains a personal connection with traditional Christianity in some form.

Charles W. Hedrick
Professor Emeritus
Missouri State University

Posted by Charles Hedrick at 10:37am

Hi Charlie,

After experiencing the "death of God" I reached back into my childhood and remembered looking up and wondering where God came from. I saw particles of light in the air and decided God was in each of them. But in the back of my mind some evil thought lurked, reminding me God was nonexistent. All of the superstitions and miracle beliefs I clung to for assurance in a supernatural world one by one faded out of my mind, leaving me with nothing, the very thing I dreaded most. In religious studies life took on new meaning as I allowed myself the freedom to explore life without God. Ironically, I felt taller and more responsible; I loved life here. Heaven began when I continued to follow God's rules regardless of rewards that might or might not happen and accepted the mystery of human consciousness. I summoned all my demons and asked them to devour me because I did not intend to live in fear of them or in fear of a ruthless God. It was a huge relief to not be afraid anymore, to be ready for anything. My interest in Jesus/anything religious is a belief in a man people spoke of whose name was Jesus, someone who went about doing good. I continue to follow him. What struck me about Price is that he compartmentalizes what he does on weekends and what he does through the week. I think his view contrasts sharply with my own. As much as I love literature and especially religious literature, I would not set my belief in goodness aside. I no longer believe in perfection, but in goodness.

I find it difficult to understand how Price could compromise his integrity by performing rituals that are "vestigial and nostalgic"; furthermore, his belief that the universe is at the very least neutral or at most hostile, his faith would likely succumb due to lack of hope. I, myself, think "a spirituality of inquiry stretch[es my] soul more than a belief in dogmatic answers...." but does not cause me to use rituals that have no meaning. Stretching (Charlie) in this manner affords me the oportunity to share with literal-minded people the glory I feel at being able to question God(s) about anything without angering him or being punished by him. If he/she/it is not there, I risk nothing. If he/she/it or even they are somewhere and comprehend what I think or say, they are too big and intelligent to be offended by anything I could or would say.

I do not believe Bible stories have to be historical to transform us. All literature contains the essence of God. In my study of John Updike's novel Rabbit Run I discussed mandala symbolism which is a round or square design that reveals God as with the symbols for Christianity--the cross or fish. Rabbit, the character, ran on the periphery of a forest in his town which represented his inability to connect with people in his life and with God. He was "everyman" strugging to make ends meet, trying to live with his wife and children, attending the Episcopalian Church while feeling contempt for the preacher who stood for nothing. On a golfing outing with his preacher he hit the ball so high in the air that it disappeared for a moment before it returned to the ground. Suddenly, he was aware of a supernatural feeling of a presence of something invisible that altered his life. That night he curled up beside his wife in bed and she (like James Joyce's Molly) said "yes". This indicated their acceptance of reality. Accepting reality and the 20th century loss of faith does not mean God does not exist. It merely means we do not know scientifically whether or not he exists. We can live a heavenly life after the acceptance of what cannot be changed. The Bible Stories offer memorable happenings of an ancient culture. The kernel of truth is a golden thread that winds its way through our culture as well. All people everywhere have a longing for God. In my search for a relationship with a supernatural deity I have discovered that if there is a deity, hesheitthey always send a human to help when I need help. Before I left the Baptist Church I belonged to for 45 years I held a great deal of animosity for the lies I was told, fundamental ideas they superimposed on the Bible Stories. Once I left, I was released from all the tonnage of rules. I could breathe again. The problems I faced as a student of religion, having my jaw drop at all the "blasphemous" statements, were easy to resolve within myself compared to the horrible behavior of "religious" people.

I view participation in religious services, not as Price does, "merely vestigial and nostalgic," but as communion, sharing ideas, asking questions, accepting widely, all the people who are different--like me. I have to agree with Price on his "poetic faith." It is "an ever-evolving process that shall never end." "The fully inclusive kingdom that Jesus proclaimed" only can happen when all of us realize that the "Opus" is what is important. This life is the greatest gift of all. Whoever gave it had to be a magnanimous individual.

It was God. That is my belief. Sandy Price
Posted by Sandra Price on 2/2/2009 at 1:06pm

Dear Dr. Hedrick,

I attend a Sunday School class at a United Methodist Church in Rock Hill, South Carolina. The members of that class are all members of professional communities including several academics. We begin discussing When Faith Meets Reason tomorrow morning, and I will be quite interested in reading your blogs; especially since we will be 1-2 weeks behind your discussion group. Thanks, in advance, for your "participation" in our class.

Best regards,
William F. Malambri, D.M.A.
Posted by William F. Malambri, D.M.A. on 1/31/2009 at 4:41pm

Thanks and I will be looking for a report of what your class thinks about the religious journeys modeled in the book. And I hope that you will encourage them to blog it at this site. Today we are discussing the journey of Robert Price, so we are at least five weeks ahead of you. I treated the introduction as a separate class. As yet none of my class has been prompted to blog the book but I will encourage them this morning to do that.


Posted by Charles Hedrick on 2/1/2009 at 8:16am