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Thursday, March 1, 2012

Theology and Ethics

I said that I totally disagreed with those (like Rick Santorum) who said that there could be no morality, no sense of right and wrong, good and evil, without religion.  I even said that religion with moral certainty is evil or at least the source of much of it since it leads to a violation of the categorical imperative found in the structure of our human existence.

But let me put on my old Jesuit theology hat and talk about God or gods, which is what theology does.  Steven Hawking in Brief History of Time indicated that scientists were approaching the Grand Unified Field Theory of Everything and, when achieved, would look into the "Mind of God." He was confronted and assured his followers that, like most scientists, he did not find use for any entity outside or beyond nature and was just using the phrase as "a metaphor."

Well, of course, metaphor (e.g. symbol, image, model) is all we have to advance knowledge.  According to Karl Popper, John Dewey, and all students of scientific method, we use our imaginations to make conjectures and then check them out by making predictions that can falsify the models we postulated.  The question is: is the metaphor "God" at all useful in our post enlightenment, post modern world.

I have discussed morality from an evolutionary psychologist point of view. Moral rules preserve and advance the species by helping us get along with other people.  Those rules are legitimated through laws and sanctified through religion. And from what I read there are three orders of "other people": 1) family, tribe, spouse for reproduction, protection, and emotional support, 2) friends and community (including neighborhood, congregation, service club, association) for social relevance and intellectual support, 3) city, state, civilization for cultural, artistic, and scientific education and support.

Ethics is a critique of the moral rules so that 1) we can adapt to changing and new environments and 2) we can satisfy a personal and collective yearning, wonder, hope for knowledge (including moral knowledge) and further our growth as human beings.

Just as ethics is a critique of moralities (e.g. comparative moralities in history or the operating ones in our culture), so is theology the critique of religions, their expressions, institutions, and rituals.  Theology means "study of god/s" and is taught in seminaries and divinity schools.  The "God" hypothesis is problematic.  

It is not a scientific statement because it cannot be falsified (Popper) and it is often a hindrance to science by blocking the search for universal explanation.  In that sense I again argue that literal theism is immoral insofar as it impedes the human moral imperative.

Supernatural entities by definition (admitting of no explanation in nature) are pretty useless for actual knowledge though quite a delight for fantasy and fiction. However, because gods can incite imagination and imagination is a vital part of science, there may be a way to reflect on religion and thus do theology as a useful human venture.  Can one be a non-theist and a theologian?  In my theological tradition, I will try to do that now.

The definition of God that I like most is the one in the Johannine tradition that "God is Love and we who live (and act) in love, live in God and God in us."  This ties into Paul's morality that there are three key virtues, "faith, hope, and love and the greatest of these is love" and Luke's indicator of the ideal community: "see how they love one another." And then there is Matthew 25, the beatitudes, which is love for the least of these.

But what is love?  If I can provide an explanation of love--especially through science--maybe I can vindicate theological thinking that God is Infinite Love and the purpose and meaning of human existence. Though I am not sure I care about vindicating theological thinking.  I am more interested in using the imaginative aspect of theology to further our human quest and prospect. 

Human thinking, action, and existence are about relationships, relationships at all levels, micro and macro.  We use our symbolic capacity--images, words, models, metaphors, formulas--to discern, develop, and verify relationships.  The arts and sciences are primary means by which we exercise this capacity. 

Neuroscientists have isolated functions in the brain supported by hormones to explain love bio-chemically:  Lust (eroticism?) incited by testosterone.  Romantic love supported by dopamine.  And bonding love through oxytocin and vasopressin.

But I would rather use the three orders I described above to define "love" as a uniting relationship among people.  In the first order, there is affective and erotic love--that of family and admirers.  In the second order, there is friendship love--that of companions and colleagues. And in the third there is transcending love--that of mystics, poets, seekers, and adventurers.

The third order of love is linked to the search for universal explanation and to progressive knowledge and transformation of the world or what David Deutsch calls the "beginning of infinity."  Infinity refers to the ongoing reach of ideas, the progressive search for explanation, the totality of relationships.  The relationships that make up the nature of our existence and especially the temporal, spatial and ideal dimensions of our social relationships is that third order of love.

Perhaps here is a moment to resurrect the theory of Omega Point advocated by Teilhard de Chardin and Frank Tipler.  Dennett I think rightly criticizes Chardin by inferring an inevitable progressive intentionality and directionality in Evolution. Tipler is criticized for giving Omega Point, occurring at the Big Crunch, unwarranted characteristics.  Both identify Omega Point with God--one that is becoming through the progress of universal understanding or explanation.

Bernard Lonergan analyzes human understanding in scientific method and discovers infinity in the "unlimited and unrestricted desire to know" and defines Being or God as the objective for the unrestricted desire to know.  The notion of God is our experience of our collective and progressive search for knowledge of our world and for unity in our relationships.  This notion can be identified with universal truth and love and is beginning of infinity.

I think this notion, which is really the dynamism of our existence with its transcending and intentional quality, gives meaning to the God metaphor without postulating some supernatural entity or order beyond or above nature.  That is, should one want to use "God-talk" (e.g. theology) at all, which I seldom do.  More important to me is the commitment to thought and action that will progress our knowledge and relationships which we make by continuing to question, to think, to problem-solve, to act, and to keep learning, never settling for old language and answers especially in the form of creeds and institutions. 


That, I think, is the "faith" beyond the religions and moralities to which great prophets, philosophers, and poets have pointed us (including Lao-Tsu, Socrates, Jesus, Spinoza).

And so, as a non-theist and a theologian, I think there can be a place for God-talk in good philosophy and science if you recognize its metaphorical character. Nevertheless, I want my church or temple to be without revelations from angels and gods, without creeds or infallible pronouncements, and without an institution that pretends to be founded by or on some Absolute.  I want the clergy, not as conduits of infallible pronouncements or mediators to truth, but guides to faith in existence/truth/love, encouraging us to go on searching and exploring even without finding.  So God is infinite love and the purpose and meaning of human existence--for which we personally and collectively must take responsibility.

I guess that makes me a unitarian, universalist, catholic.  In faith a universalist accepting the ambiguity of diversity; in hope a unitarian trusting that we can eventually achieve unity, and in love a catholic, inclusive of all without condition. If God-talk leads to this, so be it. But when God-talk gets in the way of this (as it often does), then I disdain it.

1 comment:

carroll said...

I think I go with Einstein saying there are two ways to live: Believing that everything is a miracle or nothing is a miracle. I believe in miracles, I love a God who is Love and is all (Whiteheadian). While my head might go along with your thinking, my heart believes/feels/knows something more. I experience the Holy Spirit with me.