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Friday, December 16, 2011

The Religious Instinct

Last night we experienced the Black Nativity at H Street Playhouse.

Gospel and Soul at its height.  We are still floating with the music, the dance, the energy.  Thanks, Langston Hughes.  Thanks, Theater Alliance.  Thanks, great cast, all of whom we met afterwords.  What an angel you are! I told the woman who played Gabriel.  I believe, I told a lead of one of the spirituals.  And Joseph and Mary, Alvin Ailey would be so proud.

How so very important is the gospel to the African American community with its salvation and liberation message as well as its code for abolition and civil rights!  But also its ability to make people feel good about themselves even in oppressive situations.  Maybe an opium, as Marx said, but one needed for survival.  Yes, what a friend we have in Jesus!  Yes, God gives us all we need.

Even as a non-theist and non-Christian, I acknowledge and experience that good news with great relish and appreciation.

As an avid reader and thinker in philosophy and science, I cannot but accept that there is indeed a "religious instinct" in most of us -- throughout our species across the boundaries of culture.  "Ab esse ad posse valet allatio," assert the scholastics.  From the existence of religion in all its manifestations, we can argue to a potentiality (e.g. instinct) for it.

But where does it come from, the philosopher of science in me asks.

Yale Professor Paul Bloom has demonstrated that in child development and the dawn of the "theory of mind" and the firing of "mirror neurons," i.e. a sense of other selves with feelings and awareness, these attributes are sometimes attributed to events and inanimate objects.  Thus a sense of supernatural entities develops often interpreted through the stories of the child's culture.  This is the "accidental" foundation for gods and religion.

Neuroscientist Michael Gazzaniga, Director of the Sage Center at UC Santa Barbara, points to the evolution-selected "interpreter" of the brain's left hemisphere that is wired to find explanations and put order in the chaos of the emergent possibilities of the universe.  And so we affirm a First Cause, an original Logos, a Designer, or some Power beyond nature to make sense of it all including us.

I incorporate both of these in a theory of perception or consciousness from which develops a sense of self inextricably connected to others and to objects in the world in relation to a history and a future.  It is a dynamic, emerging, transient sense that can be properly labeled as a sense of transcendence--in the here and now, but continually passing beyond it in our developing communication with others.  This dynamism is the power of language, science, art, and, yes, culture and religion.  It is Aristotle's "wonder," Lonergan's "unrestricted desire to know," Frankel's "search for meaning," Bergson's "élan vital," Otto's "idea of the holy," Hegel's "dialectic," Neitche's "will to power, "Tillich's "ultimate concern," Dewey's "quest for unity" and "religious attitude."

The fallacy of course is to identify this dynamism of human being with any thing, person, cause, narrative, or entity.  From this fallacy comes the illusion of the absolute and delusion of the perfect that closes the book, stops revelation, and destroys the dynamism.

The dynamism of the human mind or soul is a wonder indeed and the source of many wonders in science, religion, civilization, and love and art--including the wonder of the Black Nativity and the wonderful story it sings and dances.

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