A “new” way to think about religion!


Mark Vernon points out that philosophy’s classical way of approaching religion appears to have hit a wall. He suggests that this is because philosophy approaches religion as if it were a primarily emotional rather than a rational response. I suppose William James has had a larger influence than many of us within organized religion realize.

As Vernon describes it, religion is imagined to confirm the prior convictions that one has because of ones faith, not because of ones dispassionate observations of reality.

But apparently there’s a new avenue opening up; one that treats religion more like a philosophy of life (ala stoicism or some forms of Buddhism). Vernon writes:

“Three characteristics of the new approach are striking. First, philosophy, like religion, is being recognised as a way of life, as much as a way of thinking. That philosophy, at heart, might be a struggle with life, rather than just with reason, was something the ancient Greek philosophers took for granted. In the Republic, Plato writes: ‘For our discussion is on no ordinary matter but on the right way to conduct our lives.’ The Stoics, another group of philosophers who followed in Socrates’ footsteps, used to say that ‘thought is therapy’.

For believers, it is fairly obvious that the spiritual life is a way of life, composed of rituals, ethics and commitments. That may or may not then be reflected in a rigorous set of metaphysical arguments. But philosophers forgot that the proof of the religious pudding is in the living rather than the thinking, and so they assumed that the heart of belief was to be found in its assertions, not in its fruits. Hence they nagged at the proofs for the existence of God or the coherence of the concept of God. Now, though, as the chief imperatives of ancient philosophy are being rediscovered, so a model is emerging that brings philosophical practice closer to religious practice; the two find natural sympathies once more. Both primarily seek life in all its fullness, and only secondarily justifications with all the footnotes.

That said, philosophers won’t give up on the footnotes and with good reason, for reason is a vital part of the religious quest. Without it there is no discernment or refinement of insights and patterns of life. But here too a different kind of argument is showing itself, one interested in questions about what it is to be good or what it is to be a person. One central issue is this: how can you account for the moral nature of the way that people experience the world? The secular approach looks to processes such as evolution and, frankly, they don’t provide very satisfactory answers.”

Read the full article here.

I’d add to his second paragraph, speaking as a person of faith and one who still believes in such things as the “real presence” of Christ in the sacraments of the Church; that people of faith do not effectively communicate the important didactic role of the rituals. I suppose this is because we’re so used to having to talk about the mystical side of experience of the sacraments. But that’s not the only reason for the ritual.

There’s a recognized response to an anthropological need in infant baptism, in bar mitzvah or confirmation, in wedding liturgies that a good liturgist works with as much as the liminal mystical threshold experience. There’s a fundamental teaching in Christ’s willingness to be the innocent victim in an effort to slake our human need for sacrifice as a way to maintain existing societal structure in the Eucharistic prayer. There’s a basic human emotional growth and maturity processing going on in the “wise counsel” given by the confessor in the rite of Penitence.

Perhaps we in the faith community have reacted to arguing with folks who claim that religion is a fundamentally irrational response to the world in which we live by unconsciously allowing them to frame the terms of the debate. It’s exciting to me to see that there may be some new debating partners entering the field. Perhaps their presence will push the field back to a more balanced point seeing the rational as well as the emotional responses out which comes our faith.

The Author

Episcopal bishop, dad, astronomer, erstwhile dancer...

1 Comment

  1. Thanks for this, Nick. This article connects with my dissertation topic “Noetic Effects of the Incarnation” in a big way. In particular, we are beginning to understand that “reason” and “emotion” work together, and that reason is dependent on emotion in crafting the thick concepts which are the mental mappings that shape our responses to stimuli. The opposition between reason and emotion turns out to be false, or at least misunderstood. Emotion is the vital connection between ritual, as you discuss it, and the thick concepts I mention. Our rituals do in fact shape us ethically by training our emotions such that our reasoning changes as we are indoctrinated into narrative. My work is going to, I hope, demonstrate this convergence between liturgy, ethics, and what we are learning in genetic psychology.

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