23 May 2007

Humor and what-ifs

There’s a nice piece by James Traub in last Sunday’s NYT Magazine. In it, Traub describes a conversation he had with Al Gore in the course of writing a story about him for the magazine. Check out all of the erudite references therein:

Gore was telling me about Ilya Prigogine, a Belgian chemist who won a Nobel Prize in 1977 for his insights into the thermodynamics of open systems, an intriguing subject that has very little to do with global warming. Every minute or so he flashed a microgrin at a passer-by without interrupting his oratorical flow. We had moved on to complexity theory, which Gore would really immerse himself in if only he had the time, and then to the concept of nested systems, which of course had been developed by the late psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner.

Now go back and re-read that paragraph, except substitute the words “President Bush” for “Gore”, and read it out loud, and see if you can get to the end of the paragraph without bursting into laughter.

Alas, wherefore not Gore-Obama ’08?

19 May 2007

Back to the spiritual

First, a warning: If anyone from my Sunday School class is reading this, you’re cheating by skipping ahead. However, I’ll give you extra points for initiative, so you’re OK.

I’ve recently been teasing my class with an overview of world religions, taking on one (or sometimes two) major faith traditions in any given one-hour class. Needless to say, there’s no way in hell (pun intended) you can adequately address a major religion in one hour, so it’s been a real highlight-of-highlights-reel approach (e.g., here are the five pillars of Islam, moving right along to Judaism…).

The real point of this series that I’ve concocted (yes, it’s true, I’ve just been making up the whole thing on my own) is reflected in the title of the series, namely “Religions of the World: Beyond Pluralism”. But why “beyond” pluralism? Isn’t pluralism the usual goal of liberal-minded religious folks? Don’t we want to strive for interfaith dialogue, engage in ecumenical activities, and generally try to understand each other’s traditions while remaining faithful to our own?

Well, yes and no. Yes, in that these are all good things in and of themselves. No, in that these things are not the end, but are only a point along the journey. Let’s go beyond that point – is it possible that all religions contain truth, and that none is the exclusive repository of Eternal Truth (whatever that is)? If so, then perhaps all are equally valid – and if that’s the case, then are any actually valid, since most of them claim some sort of exclusive hold on The Truth? Or are they all just grasping at The Truth, each one getting a little bit right but none having a total picture?

In order for any religion to extol exclusive truth-claims, there has to be a Truth in the first place that the religion is trying to grasp. If there’s not an underlying theological Truth, then the effort to discover it is rather fruitless. So either there is something out there, or there isn’t. If there isn’t, then maybe we should say that all religions are equally invalid. If, on the other hand, there is something out there, is it possible that all religions are equally valid, or is it necessarily true that one or more are making better truth-claims than others?

Or perhaps they’re all saying the same thing in different ways – glimpses of what many have called the “perennial philosophy”. Or, maybe there’s a portion of our neurobiology that responds to deity-worship, and religions have built up in response to this evolution-enhanced biological imperative, and pretty much any religion could fit it as long as it triggers the right neurochemical flows.

Maybe religions are just trying to explain the as-yet-unexplainable, just as they’ve always done. Before we knew about how the solar system works, religions taught that the deity made the Sun rise in the morning and set in the evening. Now we know (well, most of us, except maybe for about 30% of the Republican Presidential candidates) that the Earth rotates around the Sun. During the time that Newtonian physics reigned supreme, we were able to think in very deterministic, cause-and-effect terms about everything in the universe. Now that quantum physics has revealed the limitations of Newtonian physics, we are left with some uncertainties but we also know much more than we used to about the way the universe really works. Things that used to seem like “magic” are now explainable. Is religion just filling in the gaps of what we don’t know, and therefore shrinking as our generally knowledge expands – which explains why religious conservatives can be so frightened of scientific discovery?

OK, I’ll stop here. I haven’t answered all the questions I’ve posed (perhaps not many of them), but I have to leave something for my class to ponder over the next couple of weeks. Check back here and I’ll let you know what we decide.