Friday, August 30, 2013

Doubt II

I was just reading an online article on Discovery about some newly discovered cave paintings by Native Americans, in Tennessee. They are the oldest cave paintings in North America. The author says that many of the paintings express a belief in a higher power. When my wife took World History at Brookdale Community College, her book talked about the cave paintings in France and Spain and how they also seemed to indicate that primitive man's belief in a higher power.

Socio-biological evolutionary theory is fascinating. My understanding is that a great deal of it has to do not with the adaptive survival of individuals but foremost, of communities/groups.  Note that religious faiths are as much or more about the community as they are about individuals. 

My older son has studied the theory of evolution extensively and confirms that the basic life force is the survival and propagation of the species.  In the Book of Genesis, when God says to Adam & Eve, "Be fruitful and multiply," I interpret that to be the Biblical author's observation and affirmation of what evolution tells us. 

Is it possible that, from the time of the earliest homo sapiens, that manifestations of belief in a higher power are part of the brains evolutionary adaptation to life, to help ensure the survival and propagation of the species?

If that is true, then surely, much of the attempts at adaptation seem ineffective or failures, neurotic.  But what if some of the attempts at adaptation are effective?  In comparison with more traditional evolutionary science, recall that most if not all species die out someday. Neanderthal Man died out, but my son's physical anthropology textbook says that he actually had a good run--lasting longer actually than we have been around so far.  So the fact that a hypothesized religious faith as an adaptive mechanism on the part of the brain may fail often does not necessarily prove that it is not part of an evolutionary mechanism. 

If faith/religion is a manifestation of socio-biological evolutionary adaption, then what does that mean?  It suggests that it is a good thing and in fact is related to our survival as a species. It should be dismissed or condemned. Certainly it should be studied but perhaps in a way I know not.

Extending the thought:

But this has to do with the soft programming of the brain's neuro-circuits not the hard programming of our physical bodies.

It is a well observed fact that the various major religions of the world seem appropriate to the cultures within which they originated and developed.  Hinduism seems far more suited to traditional India. The same with Islam and the traditional Arab culture. These differences also account for when the major religions fight with each other.  The issue is that we now live in the modern world, and to me it would seem that in order to survive, the traditional religions have to do some radical evolving.


Like any other believer, I have doubts about faith.  One of my frequently recurring thoughts has been that theology is nothing more than poetry. 

In listening to several video interviews of the poet and Catholic convert Mary Karr, I was struck by the fact that when she talks about faith, she sounds exactly the same as when she is reading poetry. It occurred to me that it is not the case that theology is poetry, but rather that poetry is theology. 

Poetry is religion. But note that there is good poetry and bad poetry. The thing that makes poetry religion is that the poet is true to her own experience. 

Recall the ancient Greek's attributes of the divine: the one, the true, the good, the beautiful.
I was listening to the below video, and my ears perked up when she said, "Theology is poetry."  Btw, I have never been wild about Karen Armstrong, but she has some excellent viewpoints. You won't be converted by her video, but you may find some spiritually enlightening things.  

The Case for God: Karen Armstrong at St Paul's Cathedral.

And here is sampler of Mary Karr reading poetry (and listen to the first poem):

Mary Karr talking

The Sacrament of the Present Moment, by Jean-Pierre De Caussade

During Holy Week, I found a thin book called ,The Sacrament of the Present Moment, in the back of a church.  Haphazardly, I  picked a section to read and it resonated with me. The text had been compiled in the 18th century from spiritual conferences and letters that a French Jesuit, Jean-Pierre De Caussade had conducted for a convent of nuns.  The book is considered a spiritual classic, and I am surprised that I had never heard of it before.

I finally ordered a copy through my local library, and now find the book tedious and suffocating. The book is about living in the present moment and completely surrendering to the will of God in each moment.  As the translator, Katherine Muggeridge says, the aim is to annihilate the ego, the self.

The author talks extensively of the importance of listening to one's heart, of affection for one's heart, and how God talks to each of us in our hearts. Only recently have I learned that the word heart in the romance languages means something different than how it is most commonly used in English.  In English, the word heart is used as a synonym for feeling.  In the romance languages, the word heart means the innermost part of our being.  From the European definition, it seems  that the heart is a hidden and true self.  For me personally, to do something from the heart means to do it with all of our faculties acting in full concert--intellect, emotions, intuition, experience, and whatever other human components.

As an American of my generation (age 58) raised in an Irish-Catholic religious culture, feelings were scorned, were not to be trusted.  The intellect was all. When I was a child, displays of emotion were ridiculed.   Ironically, I grew up in a parish called Sacred Heart. While I knew that our pastor and many others had a devotion to the sacred heart of Jesus, I had no understanding of what the sacred heart meant.  It was something abstract . This is an example of a religious practice that has been reduced to formalism.

The emphasis on doing God's will is biblically and theologically correct of course. The problem is the approach--that teachers, writers, and clergymen like De Caussade present it in such as way that it comes across as repressive.  They seek to impose it upon us externally.  Rarely has it been taught as an interior movement, as something desired by the heart, as something sought by the self. Where is my "I" in all of this?  On the other, perhaps I should consider De Caussade's original audience, of women who have already chose to give their life to God and are presumably well along the spiritual journey.

On one level, De Caussade is contradictory. He puts the highest value on the desires of the heart; yet, he seeks to destroy the self. De Caussade's discussion of the heart  is wonderful and beautiful and should be a part of everyone's education.  He in fact writes very preciously and affectionately of the desires and movements of the heart. There is nothing harsh, authoritarian, or repressive about that part.

In my childhood Catholic education, the desires of the "I" counted for nothing. The "I" could be abused, neglected, sacrificed.  Sanctity meant denial of the "I."  Coming from my background, anything about the heart is always about something different and far away, that I can relate to only in the abstract.

So, despite De Cassade's beautiful counsel on discernment of the heart, talk of God's will being imposed from without is enough to frighten me off. Although I think I have a better than superficial understandings of concepts like heart and God's will, and can work through the historical and cultural differences, the book's apparent contradictions are too complex for me to be able to be able translate, reconcile, and integrate. Doubtless. the book contains many spiritual riches, but perhaps  readers from a less authoritarian upbringing than I will appreciate it more.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A Truth Experienced

"In sorrow and suffering, go straight to God with confidence, and you will be strengthened, enlightened, and instructed."

~St. John of the Cross

On Being Human - Hauerwas

"To be a human being is not a natural condition, but requires training. The kind of training required, moreover, has everything to do with death. To follow Jesus is to go with him to Jerusalem where he will be crucified. To follow Jesus, therefore, is to undergo a training that refuses to let death, even death at the hands of enemies, determine the shape of our living.”

- Stanley Hauerwas, Working With Words: On Learning to Speak Christian

To Learn from Life

"Life is not literature. Before we can assimilate anything, we have to turn it over in our minds again and again. To take in and to assimilate is a slow process. The mind has to concentrate on its object a long time, if it is to take on its form and live it."

- Dom Augustin Guillerand, Carthusian