Grandfather Tree

Now having come to understand that we are all spiritual beings who have chosen to temporarily live a physical existence on this planet, certain musings are inevitable, and shared here.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Spirituality as Delusion?

I would refer the reader to a sermon [it's a PDF file] delivered on October 22, 2006 by Rev. Ronald Knapp, who is the Minister Emeritus of the First Unitarian Church of Omaha Nebraska. I am not nearly as well read or informed in regard to UU discourse as many of my readers, so I would inquire of my readers if there is a type of rift in UU between the “humanist/atheist group”and the “theist/spiritual group.” If so, what is the nature and history of that division? As an articulate UU minister for forty years, would Rev. Knapp be a good representative for the “humanist/atheist group”? I do not really know how these things work; I don’t know if the Midwest is sufficiently recognized within the UU community to claim this or not. I would very much appreciate any comments in regard to his arguments and my responses.

[Unfortunately I felt a need to enable comment moderation due to one blogger who insisted on making inappropriate comments, but please do not allow that to dissuade others from commenting, as I generally will be able to approve comments within a few hours of their posting.]

Knapp shares with us the question which has intrigued him for forty years in the UU ministry: “How can one articulate a religious faith that, without delusion, accepts and incorporates modern knowledge of the world and the universe?” He simplifies the question to: “How can one reconcile, without delusion, science and theology?” His answer lies in “naturalistic humanism.”

In defining naturalism, Knapp states that “the natural world is the only world we can know,” and in terms of human experience, “the only world there is.” This delegates any belief in the supernatural as delusion. We are not even allowed to attribute “moral, spiritual, or supernatural significance” to any phenomena. Any meaning of the ultimate must be found through “chance processes of nature and not the result of some cosmic intent.”

It is my view that such a restricted definition does not create the space for a reconciliation of science and theology, rather it restricts theology to that of a follower. The theologian must first examine scientific understandings, accept them as truth, and then glean what metaphoric value one can from their symmetry or their cohesiveness.

Knapp actually does a rather delightful job of just that by focusing on two areas where he is able to utilize the knowledge gained through empirical science in our pursuit of an understanding of our place in the universe: namely, evolution and scientific cosmology. He makes a persuasive case for evolution providing a backdrop for our understanding of ourselves as intrinsically connected to all other biological beings on this planet, and cosmology for understanding ourselves as being part of a universal oneness. As Carl Sagan was fond of saying, “we are made of stardust.”

However, I do not think this is sufficient on which to build a religion, even less so a spirituality.

[Sagan also said: “Personally, I would be delighted if there were a life after death, especially if it permitted me to continue to learn about this world and others, if it gave me a chance to discover how history turns out.”]

There is another kind of knowledge that is different from empirical knowledge. When Carl Jung was asked if he believed in God, his answer was something like “No, I do not believe in God; I know God.” What kind of knowing is that? It certainly is not the kind of knowledge that would meet Knapp’s restrictive definitions. I would invite the reader to think about other kinds of knowledges. For example, I know that I love my life partner. I cannot prove this empirically, but to say I only believe it, I do not know it, would not be true. I do know it. So what kind of knowledge is this?

I do concede that Knapp has a point in regard to knowledge, because without a restrictive definition anyone can claim knowledge about anything. An evangelist can claim that God told him to fight against abortion. Since this sort of claim is based on some sort of individual experience and cannot be subjected to the rigors of the scientific method, then there is no way to disclaim it. Another minister can equally claim that God told him to fight for the right to have an abortion. I can claim (which I have) that I have some knowledge about the after-life through my experiences with Dreamwalking. Such a claim, again, cannot be proven or disproven through the scientific method. It some ways, with Knapp, it might be safer to dismiss all such claims than to find a way to decide which if any ought to be considered.

This is playing it too safe and unacceptable to me. Going back to the experience I have of loving my life partner, and having knowledge that my experience is real, I can say “I know that I love her.” Of course I cannot prove this claim, and it is unnecessary to do so. Similarly, I can say, “I know that there is life after death for us humans on this planet.” This is equally unable to be proven. Or similarly, I can say “I believe there is life after death for us humans on this planet.” I can then share some of my experiences which led me to this belief, or to this knowledge. Others do not have to accept this or believe it. It will not necessarily fit another’s experiences or ways of being in the world. In fact, I have shared these experiences with many in my Unitarian Universalist congregation. Some are intrigued, some are interested, and some have similar beliefs or knowledges. Others find my experiences to be quite foreign and implausible.

To date, no members of my community have told me that I was delusional. I of course do not know if some may think that, and if they do, that is really O.K. I think, however that few actually see me as delusional because they trust me. I have shown myself to be trustworthy for the most part among a group of people for 16 years. Most have developed some respect for me as a person with integrity.

I mention this as another possible way for us humans to discern different knowledge claims of people. Do I have any reason to trust that person? There is a great scene in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (the Chronicles of Narnia by C.S.Lewis) where the youngest has claimed to have walked through the wardrobe into another world called Narnia, and that her brother saw it also. The older skeptical siblings go to the professor for advice. He asks them if their experience has been that their younger sister was the more reliable and trustworthy, or if their brother was. They immediately reply that it is the sister every time. The professor then suggests that they ought to listen to her. His logic tells him that it is much more unlikely that their sister would be lying than that there be such a wardrobe.

So, considering whether the person making a claim is trustworthy is one way of offering some ability to discern. The second and I think more important method is to hold the information in one’s heart and decide whether it resonates there or not. It is possible, I think, to develop the capacity to make distinctions though this heart examination method. Many find it extremely helpful in many areas of life.

Knapp begins and ends his sermon with a poem from Whitman where the full-grown poet stands between Nature and the Soul of man. What then is this "soul of man" and is it even permissable under Knapp's restrictive definitions? Perhaps Knapp is giving Whitman the benefit of the doubt or allowing a certain poetic license, that this "soul" is merely metaphoric? Or perhaps it is OK to surpass limitations imposed by naturalistic humanism once in a while? [2087]


  • At 9:25 PM, Blogger Axinar said…

    Actually, for the most part the atheist crowd has a pretty firm grip on the Unitarian Church.

    Here in Cincinnati we have one called First Unitarian where they truly do love the minister to death (a certain fireball by the name of Sharon Dittmar), but I found myself cracking up when the "welcoming committee", although obviously being very respectful of her, almost seemed to be APOLOGIZING by saying, "Yes, our minister happens to be a theist ..."

    Actually Rev. Dittmar would describe herself as a "panentheist" - if I understand it correctly, one who can see evidence of some sort of consciousness and/or intelligence in all things in nature and not just in specific books.

    However, getting any sort of handle on what she thinks that intelligence might be is an entirely different matter ... :)

  • At 1:12 PM, Blogger Tom Cook said…

    I am an atheist toward any god as yet defined by humans, but only agnostic toward gods in general, as our human knowledge may be limited. B. Russell was accused of atheism, but was more properly called an agnostic for this reason. As to spirituality, it may not depend on resolving the question of god(s). And it especially many not depend on any religious institution. I experience it best alone in Nature.

  • At 1:30 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I too felt some sort of response was needed, but was lacking the necessary energy. Thank you for responding so eloquently, Wally!

    Labels! Boxes! Parameters! Are we really just attempting to understand, or simply using these lines of demarcation as a means of holding "FEAR" at bay? Fundamentalists from all poles are clinging to the boundaries of perceived safety. Paradoxes are everywhere/universal, yet we persist in worshiping the dichotomies, and, in some
    cases, appear to have made the act of daring to attempt to transcend dichotomies the ultimate Heresy, thus rendering Truth irrelevant.

    Apparently more frightening to many is the thought of transcending those iconized fields of Religion, Philosophy, and Science. Three is one? Why not? Perhaps I'm really just a trinitarian at heart!

    Blessings from a panenthiestic view,
    Alma ;)

  • At 9:09 AM, Blogger Wally Nut said…

    Check out this wonderful sermon as well.


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