Thursday, August 26, 2010

Jeff Lilly :: Dogma Bites Man: The Role of Reason in Religion

"The doctrine is like a finger pointing at the moon, and one must take care not to mistake the finger for the moon." — Buddhist saying

"In the beginning was the Word; and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; and without Him was not any thing made that was made. In Him was life; and the life was the light of men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not." — John 1:1-5

And in Greek

The language of the Bible is remarkably direct and accessible. John is talking about great ineffable mysteries — things perhaps beyond the comprehension of the human mind — and yet he speaks simply, plainly, as one might to a child. Actually, even more plainly than that: the language of the Bible, even in the New Testament's original Greek, is extraordinarily simple and plain, compared to the standards of the language as a whole.

To take one very evident example: the Bible uses "and" a lot. English (and Greek) have any number of conjunctions that might serve: "because", "since", "while", "however", etc. In general usage, writers and speakers tend to vary the conjunctions they use, not just to avoid heavy-handed repetition and a simplistic style, but also to link their ideas and lead the reader from thought to thought, showing how things fit together. The Bible doesn't generally do this.

The effect of this is that most Biblical passages present a series of assertions without saying how they fit together. They don't make an argument; they don't build up a complex idea; they simply list facts. This makes things easy, in a sense, because the reader doesn't have to follow an argument, or compare statements, or hold multiple ideas in their head at once. Furthermore, if the reader wants to build an argument, or construct a complex idea, the text allows them to do so; it permits, in fact, many possible interpretations. It may be, for example, that in the beginning was the Word because the Word was with God, since the Word was God; or perhaps in the beginning was the Word for the Word was with God, but the Word was God; or in the beginning was the Word despite the Word being with God, yet the Word was God; etc.

And in Hebrew, And in English

Did the Biblical authors intend their text to be so simplistic, easy to read, and ambiguous? Probably not. What they were trying to do was copy Hebrew.

This odd use of 'and' appears throughout the Old Testament's Hebrew, but there it's a lot less odd: as it happens, ancient Hebrew had very few conjunctions in the language. A writer of Hebrew didn't have much choice other than to use the conjunction "waw," which may be translated as "because", "since", "while", "for", "yet", etc., but is usually simply given as "and". And when Jesus spoke (in Aramaic, a close relative of Hebrew), he faced the same situation.

Thus when the Greek New Testament was produced, the authors were (a) working with Jesus's words, (b) trying to join their work to the established Hebraic Old Testament, (c) may have been translating into Greek from Aramaic original texts, and (d) were probably Aramaic speakers themselves; so they frequently used the Greek word for "and" (kai) instead of availing themselves of Greek's full set of conjunctions.

And since the Greek New Testament was interpreted as God's word, God's word was kai — strictly translated as et in the Latin Vulgate, und in Luther's German translation, and and in the King James.

The upshot of Hebrew's conjunctive paucity and its literal translations was that the holy canon of Christianity was simplistic, easy to read, and ambiguous. The New Testament was a single (relatively) short text, but it still admitted of many possible interpretations. For a while the churches tightly controlled those interpretations, partly by forbidding the Bible to be translated out of Latin and Greek; but once translations became available, and people began to see many possible ways of reading the text, sects multiplied endlessly.

Interestingly, the Christian Bible also admits of no interpretation. That is to say, if someone wants to simply read the list of conjoined assertions without trying to see how they fit together, and just take them as they are, on faith, they can. For many, in fact, reasoned argument is seen as antithetical to religion; rational argumentation is a slippery thing that can easily lead one astray from the unadorned Word of God, or from the immediacy and certainty of direct experience with the divine.

And in Reason, And in Religion

The role of reason in religion is one of those ambiguities that Christians have been arguing and thinking about since the beginning. Augustine believed that reason was fine, as long as it didn't contradict things known through revelation. Aquinas, on the other hand, believed that if one could simply reason long and hard enough, one would find no contradiction with relevation; and he is famous for his attempts to rationally prove the existence of God.

Meanwhile, other Christians argued that reason was, at best, a distraction, and at worst, a temptation to evil. Tertullian said "I believe because it is absurd"; Luther distrusted reason to do anything more than shed light on our own ignorance; Locke believed that faith was "above reason", and that it ruled matters where reason could not go; and Kierkegaard felt that faith required a submission of the intellect, hostile to it and forever beyond it.

These attitudes contrast starkly with the intensely rational stances held by many other Christian philosophers, as well as philosophers of Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and the Stoic pagans of Greece and Rome. For example, the Stoics believed strongly in natural law and reason, and its sway over the world and humanity. And Buddhism's core tenets read like a logical argument: There is suffering in the world; suffering arises from attachment; therefore, to remove suffering, remove attachment.

Today the situation is no closer to resolution: the war between faith and reason is recast as religion versus science, and the battles are fought in the churchyards and schoolrooms. Some people see reason and science as the amoral midwives of the modern world, with its inhuman technology and unspeakable horrors of war, and reject them unconditionally; while others point to all the wars caused by conflicts over faith and religion, and see reason and science as our only hope for species survival.

And in Druidism

Pagans in general tend to be suspicious of reason and science. Most of them hold the Earth to be tremendously holy, and it is hard to see technology's rape of the planet without holding a grudge toward the science and reasoning driving it.

Druids, however, have traditionally been less hostile to rationality. The ancient druids were the lorekeepers of Celtic society, praised by the Greeks for their knowledge of history, culture, astronomy, and the like; and the druids of the revival period carried on this tradition — most were experts in language, anthropology, religious studies, and history, as well as more esoteric arts.

Different modern Druids will give you different perspectives on rationality, though I think most would agree that it is essential to the balanced spirit. After all, reason is as much a part of being human as sleeping, breathing, and eating; it is a unique gift not lightly to be cast aside. But I think most of them would also agree that reason alone will not get you all the way to the top of the mountain.

For myself, I am heavily influenced by Zen. Zen makes use of reason, but not in the usual way.

And in Zen

Zen teaches that the highest levels of enlightenment cannot be apprehended by reason; it is beyond the capacity for rational thought. But that doesn't mean rational thought should be abandoned. On the contrary, the logical mind is an essential tool in the search for ultimate meaning.

The Zen Master presents the pupil with a koan: a logical puzzle. Among the most famous are "What is the sound of one hand, clapping?", or "What was your face before you were born?", but I prefer the simpler and less-known "Who are you?" If the student answers a name, like "John Smith", the Master then asks, "Who is John Smith?" If the student says something like, "It's me, this person standing before you," the Master asks, "But who is it standing before me?" The student is tasked to sit in meditation and ponder the question -- who am I, when all attributes and predicates are stripped away? The logical mind loops and jumps, twists and tangles...

But koans do not have answers. Their purpose is to puzzle, to force the student to exercise the mind, to reach new insights about identity and reality. Eventually the logic, relentlessly applied, begins to break the false attachments and illusions of the world, and the student starts to ascend to the higher levels of enlightenment. And at last, logic will fail, and enlightenment will be attained.

But let me be clear: koans are not the only tools available; this can be done with any ambiguous or unclear proposition — a Tarot card, a song lyric, a chance word heard on the subway. A verse from the Bible.

Dogma and Lemma

The irony, then, is that the road to enlightenment can indeed be, and has been, walked by people contemplating the Bible's oddly phrased, simplistic, and disjointed attestations, precisely because they are odd, simplistic, and disjointed. The less sense a Bible verse makes, the more like a koan it is, and the more wisdom can be wrung from it by the dedicated student. The most profound mystic truths have been inferred from nonsense such as "Whoso eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, hath eternal life; and I will raise him up at the last day." Even the maddest Zen Masters never exhorted their followers to eat them (to my knowledge — I wouldn't put it past them). But this is the foundation of some of the deepest Christian mysteries — and its meaning is a source of ferocious contention between various Christian sects.

This, then, is the last piece of advice Zen offers regarding reason: don't elevate lemma to dogma. Feel free to use whatever koans or Bible verses you like, and reason about them freely, but the final truth is beyond reason. Reason is a boat that can take you to the shore of enlightenment, but you have to step onto the shore yourself. Do not mistake your reasoned conclusions for eternal truths. To do so would be to mistake the finger for the moon.

Jeff LillyJeff Lilly is a druid, linguist, and author of Druid Journal, one of the most popular druid blogs, much to his surprise. He writes about druid things — meditation, relationship with Spirit, soulful fulfillment in scholarship and art, reconnecting the ancient with the modern, creating beauty, and healing the world. He does ritual rather ineptly but earnestly in the Pittsburgh, PA area with the Sycamore Circle. He lives with his partner Ali and her cat Cu.


  1. I'm not sure I agree with you regarding Pagans as anti-science or anti-intellectual; my experience has not supported that. (Indeed, I think Pagans are, on the whole, a bit too apt to congratulate ourselves for having a religion that is open to science, without always taking the time to deeply inform ourselves about what that science might be. Though maybe that's what you meant.)

    Otherwise, I'd have to say I enjoyed this walk through multiple theologies with you, Jeff. Not a chain of ideas I'd have thought to link, but it was good to follow with you today.


  2. Your ideas are interesting particularly in light of the contemporary movement within Christianity known as the emerging conversation, which is in essence an effort to engage Christian theology with postmodern thought. Emergents typically criticize modernist forms of hermeneutics, and favor a narrative rather than propositional approach to theology and to scriptural interpretation. If you'd like to learn more, see the writings of Brian D. McLaren.

    As a student of the mystical and contemplative traditions within Christianity, nothing you say particularly troubles me; on the contrary, I think Christianity is only served when we acknowledge that we are dealing with Mystery-with-a-capital-M, which necessitates both a robust commitment to reason and a humble recognition that ultimately reason breaks down in the presence of such mystery.

    I believe much of what is wrong with contemporary Christianity stems from either a romantic flight from reason, or else a modernist insistence that religion must be contained within the horizon of human rationality.

    I'm curious as to your thoughts regarding the role of paradox within spirituality. On one level, "and" suggests paradox: where the opposite of a great truth is not necessarily a falsehood, but perhaps another, seemingly contradictory, great truth...

  3. Cat, the anti-intellectualism I'm talking about is indeed in part of the pagan community I've seen, although it may just be a reflection of paganism's overlap with "New Age" and the broader anti-intellectualism in American society. Which is not, of course, to argue with your experience, which I know is broader and deeper and longer than mine! I hope that what I've seen is not a representative sample. Anyway I'm glad you enjoyed my romp. :-)

    Carl@anamchara: Brian McLaren was -- amazingly enough -- actually the pastor of my aunt's church in Maryland until recently. :-) Do you know him? She always spoke very highly of him, although I never had a chance to talk a lot with her about his ideas. But I have seen the way my aunt lives her spirituality and I admire it deeply. ...

    I am glad to see that nothing in this post troubles you; it certainly wasn't intended as an attack on Christianity -- quite the opposite, in fact, although it could be construed as an attack on dogmatic forms of any religion.

    I view working with paradoxes as central to my own religious practice. Holding two seemingly contradictory ideas in one's heart-mind, letting them both be true, and watching the self as it works with them and plays with them, is a fantastic way to release illusions and false beliefs, to come closer to the essential. Sometimes the mind will find a way to resolve the paradox, in which case you can set it aside and pick up another. :-) Other times you can play with the ideas for years and find that, though you have learned and matured through the work of resolution, the paradox is still unsolved. The greatest paradoxes and koans are like fractals, with layer upon layer of paradox that open up as you go deeper and deeper.