The Other I

August 4, 2012

The uncertainty of religious certainty

Filed under: Catholicism and other questions of religion,Just Stuff — theotheri @ 8:36 pm

Faith is by definition the decision to accept without empirical evidence that something as true.  In fact, it’s not just a decision.  It’s a commitment to live one’s life based on the conviction that these unproven beliefs are true.

The debate about the relationship between reason and revelation has been going on in the Western world for almost a millennium.  My thoughts here are obviously not original or even blazingly convincing to everyone.  Personally, I think I probably would have made a very good Lutheran  because Luther argued that doubt is an essential component of faith.

Do we need to make decisions in life, to have convictions and values which are not based on incontrovertible evidence?  In practice, I can’t see how we can do otherwise.  The situations we face are unique, and always will be, and some of the most significant are beyond the scope of reason or science, including most notably questions about what happens after we die, and whether life has any ultimate meaning at all  Science, previous experience, research, the wisdom of others can help us think about these questions.  But they can’t provide absolute certainty.  Neither can religious belief.  We very often must make leaps in the dark.

It is an act of the very reason with which humans are endowed, to question whether the particular truths which we choose to accept are indeed true, or whether they are beliefs about which we may be wrong.  Religion teaches that faith is not a rational achievement but a gift from God.

It might be easy to conclude that our own beliefs are a result of divine revelation if all religions arrived at the same “truths.”  But they don’t.  Different religions often teach contradictory “truths.”   How do we know that our religious beliefs, like our secular beliefs, are not the result of the time in which we live, our socialization and culture, our education, even our personal predispositions?  I can’t see how we can.  Doubt, as Luther said, is an intrinsic aspect of faith.

Much of Christianity today is convulsed by the controversy over whether what we believe or what we do constitutes the essence of Christian revelation.  The hierarchy of the Roman Catholic Church are not the only leaders of Christian religions to argue that what we think – the dogmas we believe – is essential to salvation.  What we do, how we behave, can be forgiven in confession and so even sinners who repent can gain salvation. But there is no salvation for those who refuse to accept the dogmas of Christianity.

To shore up the dangerously swelling sea of doubt in relation to many of its dogmas, the Roman Catholic Church  simply declared that the pope is infallible.  This is a recent addition to the beliefs required for salvation, which also include the virgin birth, the assumption, the divinity of Jesus, and his physical resurrection after the crucifixion.

But the pope hasn’t always been infallible.  As late as the middle ages, the pope was selected by the ruling classes of Rome.  It was understood by all to be a political appointment, and invariably the appointment went to a member of the appointing ruling class.  Sex scandals and corruption were often the norm.  Eventually the election of the pope was limited to the cardinals of the church.  This did not make the appointment less political, but the hope was that it would further the ends of the church itself more specifically.

It was not until the 19th century that the pope declared himself infallible.  Under pain of sin, Roman Catholics now must accept his infallible statements as divine revelation.

And so religious certainty is, indeed, unquestionably certain in the sense that it is unchallengeable within the context of faith.  That certainty rests not on evidence but on the personal decision to accept without question and without evidence.

What, then, if religious teaching and scientific findings contradict each other?  The Dalai Lama, and indeed Jesus himself declared that God reveals himself through creation.  The evidence of creation as it is revealed through science and other paths of experience tells us about God himself.  Religious teachings must expand, must listen to, must accept science as a light revealing something about God himself.

It seems to me that either religious teachers or scientists who think that religion and science are incompatible have too narrow a view of the nature of what either religion or science is,  the kind and source of the uncertain certainty each can provide or even the questions each can legitimately address.  Religious leaders from whatever denomination who think they have a divine mandate to overrule science may proclaim that the theory of evolution is wrong, that the earth is not more than four or five thousand years old, that it is human sin that leads to the destruction caused by natural disasters such as earthquakes and tsunamis.  I doubt that holiness by any definition requires such extreme denial of scientific conclusions.  But scientists too have been known to make proclamations in the name of science which are just as out of bounds.

It’s scary to live in a world of uncertainty, in a world without clear right answers.  And insofar as religious institutions are political, it is a great temptation for its leaders to maintain power by playing on this fear,  proclaiming that they know the way across the desert, that they do not share in the human condition of ignorance but have been given an elevated wisdom enlightened by divine revelation.

I think this is a terrible betrayal of the essence of religion.  We do live in a universe that inspires awe.  We do live in a universe that suggests to each of us some great mystery that we can only intuit but not control or understand.  True religion I think is an acknowledgement of that mystery, its celebration, its contemplation.  Not a method of social control or an introduction to science.

But if religion does not rightfully belong in the role of social control, where are we to get our moral values?  If not religion and fear of eternal damnation, why should we not murder and steal?  why should we not lie and betray?  Why should we not live for the day?

Why, specifically, did I not commit that murder which I once meticulously planned?

That’s for my next post.  For what it’s worth.

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