Paths Up The Mountain

Hello philosophy foosballers! I hope your summer break is going well. Here's some philosophical food for thought as you mow the lawn, drive to work, sip a slurpee, fire up the barbecue, or head to the beach on a sunny day. The topic: religious pluralism. Are all religions just different paths up the same mountain? Or can only one be ultimately true? Is salvation attainable for those outside my religion? Why do so many religions exist? How can I know which is really true? These are questions we ask ourselves sometimes, and Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, thinks they're perennially important and still worth discussing in contemporary Western society. So he has written a new popular book called God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions That Run The World And Why Their Differences Matter (HarperOne, 2010).

In a recent interview Prothero says, "The world is furiously religious" and so thinking and talking about religion is still very important, even in our postmodern, secular day and age. In the book's trailer he adds, "It [religion] is something that motivates people militarily, economically, politically. We need to know something about the great religions of the world in order to make sense of the world that we live in." In the interview he goes on to say that the two approaches to comparative religion that dominate our Western society currently -- lumping all religions together and labeling them as bad, as the New Atheists do, or saying that all religions are basically the same, as relativists do -- aren't fair to the world's faiths because these approaches fail to appreciate the important differences between religious traditions.

So what does all this have to do with us? Well, for we philosophically-inclined foosballers, what is important about this book is not its ridiculously long subtitle, but the ideas behind it, i.e., the ongoing philosophical debate about religious pluralism and the current social milieu into which this book is being released. In this book Prothero aims to question some of the dominant assumptions that many people in our society hold about religions. In a culture in which "tolerance" is highly prized, Prothero's book risks being misunderstood as intolerant and narrow-minded, when in fact it is trying to broaden people's thinking by clarifying the debate and fostering constructive interfaith dialogue.

In my mind, this is an issue where philosophy directly intersects with current events, ethics, and the public sphere. Religious pluralism isn't just an idea debated in classrooms. As Prothero points out, what we think about the world's religions will have an impact on how we relate to one another individually and on a societal level: "How do we get along with one another? It's not by pretending we're the same. It's by acknowledging the differences we have and then coming to understand them and respect them." This necessarily involves some careful philosophical thinking and religious literacy (the latter being a topic that Prothero has also written on).

I don't know about you, but I think this book will stir up some much-needed public dialogue about religious pluralism. I hope it will also foster some critical thinking about comparative religion, atheism, and relativism. Anybody thinking about reading Prothero's book this summer? I'd love to hear your thoughts on the book, on religious pluralism, or on the dominant way people think about religions today. Is there a certain way of thinking about religious pluralism that you have found helpful? Are there certain points which you feel are often missed in these discussions?

Ok, I'll let you get back to your summer activities now. Happy thinking!

12 comments:

Ron Krumpos said...

Orthodox, institutional religions are quite different, but their mystics have much in common. A quote from the chapter "Mystic Viewpoints" in my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org on comparative mysticism:

Ritual and Symbols. The inner meanings of the scriptures, the spiritual teachings of the prophets and those personal searchings which can lead to divine union were often given lesser importance than outward rituals, symbolism and ceremony in many institutional religions. Observances, reading scriptures, prescribed acts, and following orthodox beliefs cannot replace your personal dedication, contemplation, activities, and direct experience. Preaching is too seldom teaching. For true mystics, every day is a holy day. Divine revelation is here and now, not limited to their sacred scriptures.

Conflicts in Conventional Religion. "What’s in a Word?" outlined some primary differences between religions and within each faith. The many divisions in large religions disagreed, sometimes bitterly. The succession of authority, interpretations of scriptures, doctrines, organization, terminology, and other disputes have often caused resentment. The customs, worship, practices, and behavior within the mainstream of religions frequently conflicted. Many leaders of any religion had only united when confronted by someone outside their faith, or by agnostics or atheists. Few mystics have believed divine oneness is exclusive to their religion or is restricted to any people.

Note: This is just a consensus to indicate some differences between the approaches of mystics and that of their institutional religion. These statements do not represent all schools of mysticism or every division of faith. Whether mystical experiences vary in their cultural context, or are similar for all true mystics, is less important than that they transform each one’s sense of being to a transpersonal outlook on all life.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Jordan,

You asked, "Is there a certain way of thinking about religious pluralism that you have found helpful?" One way that I have found not helpful occurs when I am told the parable about the blind men and the elephant, more on which can be found here.

I wonder if what might be called "the mystical turn," wherein a mystic's ineffable experiences and subsequent communication of what's religiously true and important are elevated above orthodox understandings of the various religions' teachers and adherents, may in some important sense be epistemologically similar to the story of the blind men and the elephant, but with the rajah replaced by the mystic and the blind men replaced by the religions' teachers and adherents?

I'm not saying that the previous commenter is actually making this sort of, what I called, "mystical turn"; I'm just thinking that if a mystic claims to communicate religious "insider information" that in principle cannot be communicated because it's ineffable (i.e., indescribable, unspeakable), then there may be some philosophical difficulty. It's as if one said, "None of us can talk about this stuff," and then added, "but I'll tell you about this stuff."

On the other hand, if the contents of the mystical experiences are effable, then, insofar as the descriptions speak of matters publicly checkable, it would seem that careful reasoning is needed for the sake of arbitrating between conflicting truth claims (done with gentleness and respect).

Significantly, this is where the historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection comes into play. Gary Habermas and William Lane Craig have written on the resurrection. A soon-to-be published, highly praised book on Jesus' resurrection is Mike Licona's The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach.

Anyways, these are some of my thoughts on the matter. I hope that your summer is going well.

Dr. V

Ron Krumpos said...

There is an interesting article written by two professors in Australia relating Habermas’ works to what they call “practical mysticism”: http://jsw.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/8/2/149

That is what I’ve spent 50 years trying to do and write about in my e-book. It is not just contemplation and meditation. A mystical approach must be applicable to everyday living. It should transform our awareness to a transpersonal outlook on life. For most people there always seems to be something missing. True mystics feel wholeness often and can share it.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hello Ron,

Thanks for your reply. Regarding your reference to the article connecting Habermas's works to mysticism, you are referring to Jurgen Habermas, not Gary Habermas. Gary Habermas is the Habermas to whom I referred above and who does research on Jesus' resurrection; Jurgen Habermas does not do work on Jesus' resurrection and he isn't the Habermas to whom I referred. I don't doubt that Jurgen Habermas's work as used by the Australian professors is interesting, but it's not (as far as I can tell) germane to the discussion here.

I agree that a mystical approach to religious truth should be applicable to everyday life; I agree that for many people "there always seems to be something missing"; I have no doubt that mystics "feel wholeness," can talk about that feeling, and sometimes are even transformed to a "transpersonal outlook on life." Nevertheless, it seems to me, one should go further.

I think that one also should check or test one's mystical experiences with the deliverances of reason and evidence. The mystical experience could be due to some sort of self-delusion, say, arising from too many anchovies on one's pizza. Or, more seriously, the mystical experience could be due to a deceiving spirit, say, a demonic being. When I look to the evidence of the world around me, I come to the historical reality of Jesus' teachings and the reality of His life, death, and resurrection. It seems to me that Jesus' physical, bodily resurrection is a sign that He is the God of the universe come to earth, and so Jesus is the clearest revelation of this God. Thus, it seems to me, if a spirit with whom one comes into contact during a mystical experience draws one's focus away from the reality and lordship of Jesus Christ—as revealed historically in the New Testament documents—then that mystical experience is not from the true God.

I believe that one can have deeply personal, mystical experiences with the Holy Spirit, but to ensure that this spirit is from the true God requires that this spirit witnesses to Jesus, i.e., that this spirit confesses that Jesus is God in human flesh—that Jesus is the Incarnation of the God revealed in the Bible.

Maybe I'm mistaken in this. Nevertheless, this is where I think God has taken me via His Spirit working in me and encouraging me to use reason and evidence to know Him.

With best regards,
Hendrik

Continued...

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

P.S. It may be helpful to note that philosophers sometimes make a distinction between three types of knowledge: knowledge by acquaintance, propositional knowledge, and know-how (skill knowledge). What is relevant here are the first two types of knowledge: knowledge by acquaintance and propositional knowledge.

Knowledge by acquaintance includes our direct awarenesses: e.g., simply seeing (a brown furry object with a wagging tail), introspection (of my emotions, thoughts), rational insight (that if a=b and b=c, then a=c), knowing God (deeply personal religious/ mystical experience).

Propositional knowledge consists of beliefs that are taken to be true and are based on an adequate/reasonable justification for thinking the belief is true: e.g., that it’s raining outside, given a good cumulative case argument for thinking it’s raining; e.g., that God exists and Jesus resurrected, given a good cumulative case argument for thinking God exists and Jesus resurrected.

The experience of knowing God would be knowledge by acquaintance, whereas a cumulative case argument for God’s existence and Jesus' resurrection would be propositional knowledge.

It seems to me that if one wishes to love God with all of one’s mind and heart and strength (i.e., a holistic sort of love which involves all of one’s being, which Jesus describes as God's greatest commandment in Matthew 22:37-38), then such a love relationship would include not just (1) knowledge by acquaintance (personal/ religious/ mystical experience) but also (2) propositional knowledge (intellectual knowledge about God) and (3) know-how knowledge (which would involve something like living obediently and wisely). The three types of knowledge work together.

Again, I could be mistaken in this, of course. Nevertheless, this is where my journey of life (admittedly one with an academic, intellectual emphasis) has taken me.

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

P.P.S. For more on the topic of the above-mentioned types of knowledge, see J. P. Moreland’s “The Recovery of Knowledge,” which is chapter 5 of his 2007 book Kingdom Triangle.

Ron Krumpos said...

Endless Love, absolute Truth and ultimate Reality are beyond rational knowledge. Mysticism speaks of a spiritual knowing, which is not rational and is independent of reason, logic or images. Da`at is Hebrew for “the secret sphere of knowledge on the cosmic tree.” Gnosis is Greek for the “intuitive apprehension of spiritual truths.” Jnana is Sanskrit for “knowledge of the way” to approach Brahman. Ma`rifa in Arabic is “knowledge of the inner truth. ”Panna in Pali is “direct awareness”; perfect wisdom. These modes of suprarational knowing, perhaps described as complete intuitive insight, are not divine oneness; they are actualizing our inherent abilities to come closer to the goal. It is consummate cognition, unmediated discernment, with certainty.

“Great [spiritual] knowledge, round and clear, looks at a fine hair and comprehends the ocean of nature; the source of reality is clearly manifest in one atom, yet illumines the whole being. When myriad phenomena arrive, they must be at the same time, in one space; noumenon [spiritual essence] has no before or after.” Fa-Tsang [Hsien-shou] B

“...most beautiful and profound emotion we can experience is the sensation of the mystical. It is the sower of all true science. To know that what is impenetrable to us really exists, manifesting itself as the highest wisdom and most radiant beauty - which our dull faculties can comprehend only in their primitive form - this knowledge, this feeling, is at the center of all religion.” Albert Einstein J

“The knower and the known are one. Simple people imagine they should see God, as if He stood there and they here. This is not so. God and I, we are one in [spiritual] knowledge.” [Meister] Eckhart C

“The Sufi who knows the Ultimate Truth sets and speaks in a manner which takes into consideration the understanding, limitations and dominant concealed prejudices of his audience. To the Sufi, worship means [spiritual] knowledge. Through knowledge he attains sight. The Sufi abandons the three “I’s. He does not say ‘for me’, ‘with me’, or ‘my property’. He must not attribute anything for himself.” Ibn El-Arabi I

“...therefore, in order to achieve that state of Silence which is beyond thought and word, either the path of [spiritual] knowledge, which removes the sense of “I,” or the path of devotion, which removes the sense of “mine,” will suffice. So there is no doubt that the end of the paths of devotion and knowledge is one and the same.” Ramana Maharishi H

(quoted from my e-book at http://www.suprarational.org )

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hello again Ron,

You say that that "Endless Love, absolute Truth and ultimate Reality are beyond rational knowledge" and you say that mysticism offers us "a spiritual knowing, which is not rational and is independent of reason, logic or images."

I intend no disrespect to you in saying this, but I have a couple of problems with your claims.

Problem 1. For endless Love and absolute Truth and ultimate Reality to be beyond rational knowledge doesn't require them to be not rational or independent of reason. More than X doesn't logically imply that X isn't the case. More than oil, i.e., oil plus water, doesn't logically imply no oil (even though BP and the rest of us might wish it were so). It is possible that for something to be beyond X requires that X is the case plus is something more than X.

At this juncture, it may be interesting to note that in Christianity, God, who is also the Logos (Word, Reason), may not be fully understood by humans, but can be understood to some extent, i.e., to the extent the Logos reveals Himself. Moreover, in Christianity the Logos may be more than reason, but isn't less than or contrary to reason.

Problem 2. Why should I abandon reason and accept the deliverances of mysticism instead? If the view you promote is beyond reason and independent of reason, then you don't have any reason—and cannot have any reason—for me to accept it. About all you can legitimately say is that you like it, i.e., you like your mystical experiences and their effects. Well, okay. But what about the publicly accessible evidence we have for Jesus' teachings plus Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, evidence that gives us grounds to think that He is God? (See my comments and references above.) As far as I can tell, Jesus is God—the Word/ Logos/ Reason—so I'll go with loving God with all my mind (including my reason) by believing in God's revelation in Jesus.

Ron, the mystical faith you're promoting asks me to reject the deliverances of my intellect. Happily, however, I have found that faith in Jesus is a reasonable faith that encourages me to use my intellect to the fullest. My love for God has me embrace reason, not abandon reason. Happily too, my faith in Christ allows me to take my deeply subjective religious/ mystical experiences and ground them in (and test them against) the observable, public reality given to us by Him who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. I would encourage you, then, to check out (or recheck) Jesus by reading the New Testament with a heart that desires to ground its mystical experiences in Him who has provided a sign—His resurrection—as a reason for thinking that He is the endless Love, absolute Truth, and ultimate Reality that you seek.

But there is more, in Christ there is also a message of good news: In the man Jesus, God has become one of us, He showed us who He is and what He is like, and He has shown that He loves us by suffering and dying on a cross on our behalf—and He has shown us that physical death is not the final answer! For more on this wonderful news (a.k.a. gospel), I encourage you to have a look at the book of John in the New Testament.

Mystical experiences or no mystical experiences, the news about Jesus is worth checking out!

With best regards, and with prayers,
Hendrik

Ron Krumpos said...

Hello Hendrick,

For a mystic, spiritual knowledge may be both rational and suprarational. Reason and logic have their limits. My book is intended to inform readers interested in mysticism, not to convince people who are not.

Your beliefs in Jesus Christ and the New Testament are quite rational to you, but may seem irrational to believers in other faiths. My only personal objection is if you contend that it is the only way.

Earlier I just saw Habermas, not the first name. An interesting book on John is in my bibliography: The Gospel of John in the Light of Indian Mysticism, by Ravi Ravindra (Published by Inner Traditions 1990, 2004)

Kindest regards,
Ron

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Hello Ron,

Thanks for the conversation. I especially appreciate the civil tone.

I'm still concerned about people buying into a wholly subjective position (e.g., mysticism) when there are actually good, non-subjectively based reasons for thinking its deliverances about reality may sometimes not be truthful (see my comments above about self-delusion and demonic delusion). Sure, as you rightly observe, my beliefs may seem irrational to believers in other faiths. But this observation is beside the point. This observation doesn't make invalid or impinge upon the legitimacy of those reasons that can be judged to be good from the point of view critical thinking, the canons of which seem very much to be cross-culturally legitimate (see Craig Hazen's Five Sacred Crossings for more on this; see too Trudy Govier's A Practical Study of Argument). Those reasons remain.

Also, I find interesting your readiness to dispatch my beliefs about Jesus and the New Testament by relativizing them as "quite rational to you [i.e., me]" but not to others, and then objecting personally if I were to "contend that it [my belief in Jesus and the New Testament] is the only way." But on what grounds would your disagreement be based? It seems that you are elevating your philosophical worldview—which has mysticism plus the cultural relativity of reason at its core—over and above what careful reasoning actually warrants. Sure, reason and logic have limits. But that doesn't justify a complete cultural relativity of reason and logic. Sure, people have mystical experiences. But that doesn't provide grounds for the veridicality of those experiences. Moreover, if one thinks (as you seem to) that ultimate truth lies somewhere beyond reason and logic (i.e., a supra-rational position), then publicly accessible reason and logic would strongly suggest that one should move intellectually in the direction that reason and logic points us, not against it. Enter: reasonable faith in Jesus.

(For more on reasonable faith in Jesus, see William Lane Craig's book Reasonable Faith and website Reasonable Faith.)

Well, I should stop. Thanks again for the conversation, and thanks for your kind regards. Thanks too for letting me know about your e-book. I've taken a brief look at it, and hope to have a more in-depth look when time permits.

Ron, whether you agree or disagree with my views on reason, I encourage you to test the spirit/s encountered in your mystical experiences by challenging it/them with (whom I take to be) the Spirit of God who is revealed in Jesus Christ in the New Testament. As you read the New Testament, say a prayer from your heart, asking the true God to reveal spiritual truth to you. Surely, such a testing would be an open-minded, truth-seeking thing to do.

With best regards, and with prayers,
Hendrik

Ron Krumpos said...

Dear Hendrick,

I meant no disrespect to your beliefs. All of my family have been Christian, although not very religious. I was baptized, attended Sunday school, read the Bible, was confirmed, and sang in the choir of a Congregational church as a youth.

You can learn more of my personal background at http://www.peacenext.org/profile/RonKrumpos and of my involvement in mysticism. Perhaps you will find time to read my e-book. Let us agree to disagree.

Best wishes,
Ron

Hendrik van der Breggen said...

Dear Ron,

Please know that I sensed no disrespect from you, even though you objected to my beliefs. I trust and hope that I showed no disrespect to you, even though I objected to your beliefs.

Yes, we can agree to disagree, no problem. Still, I encourage you to revisit the Christianity of your youth and reconsider the New Testament's non-subjective revelation of God in Christ as an objective check to the subjectivity of your mysticism.

Thanks for sharing a bit about your personal background via the peacenext website. I wish you and yours all and only the best.

Shalom,
Hendrik