Talking About God, Part 5: Translating Faith

OK, I lied: Part 4 wasn’t the last post in the Talking About God series, because I barely scratched the surface in that post. I basically rehashed traditional ideas about God’s transcendence, immanence, and redemptiveness. Important ideas, but there’s so much more to talk about! Today I’d like to talk about how spiritualities are “translated” into scientific and philosophical language. This is done both to help evangelism, or spreading the spirituality, and to systematize it, or make sure its ideas are consistent and presented a coherent worldview. Most religions are not conceived of in the throes of philosophical debate; their impetus tends to be personal, mysterious, emotional experiences that shock and change those who experience them.

Theology is the attempt to mesh those experiences with a systematic way of understanding the world. The order of this is crucial to remember: non-dual experiences in which people experience a sense of direct presence of Truth are the foundation of any legitimate spirituality. Reason is brought in later to make sense of the experience. Generally the experiences themselves, however, defy traditional reason by cutting through the dualities that we use to understand and explain the world. So that many spiritualities struggle to reconcile their fundamental beliefs with reason is neither surprising nor an immediate reason to reject spirituality. Reason relies on comparing and contrasting to describe the world; at a fundamental level, religion always aims to transcend these dualities. Faith and science aren’t opposed, but they are different.

For Christians, of course, the fundamental experience is the resurrection of Jesus after his crucifixion. I want to dedicate a whole post to discussing the different ways of interpreting this event, so for now let’s just admit the obvious: people don’t rise from the dead. This experience, if it was anything real, is mysterious, confusing, even frightening. It doesn’t make sense. Doubting it is normal and rational. But clearly those who experienced it, whatever it was, thought it was a real event. So the heart of Christianity is a claim that seems to defy reason. But Christianity isn’t unique in this regard. The central claims of all the main world faiths are similarly fantastic. Jews (well, and Christians, but more central for Jews) believe that the Creator of the entire universe chose to communicate with and protect just one small group of humans on the Earth, intervening repeatedly to guide these people through a tumultuous history. Buddhists believe that through a cultivation of concentration and renunciation of desire, Siddhartha was essentially able to remove himself from the cycle of cause-and-effect the governs reality. Muslims believe that God recited the entire Quran to Muhammad, who remembered the entire document even though he was illiterate. Hindu believe is more diverse and is less based on one specific event, but the understanding of the incarnations, such as Krishna, are absolutely central to most Hindus’ faith and are equally mysterious events ontologically (I’m going to keep using this term–ontology–over over. If you’re not sure what it means, just click that link for a quick description! I promise it’s not nearly as stuffily intellectual as it sounds.)

These are the central, formative experiences that form the core of religious belief. Each of them defy reason in an abrupt way. And yet the first followers of each of these religions clearly felt that the experiences were not just real, not just valid, but were the most important events that had ever occurred. Were they just ignorant, irrational, unsophisticated people easily misled? Or were their experiences legitimate, something real, even if mysterious? Our answers to these questions are always mediated through a pre-existing worldview. We make judgements not based on actually being present at any of the events asserted by a faith, but based on our experiences in reality in general. What’s problematic is that the worldviews we are using to interpret and judge the religious claims of others are themselves open to critique, and are themselves evolving and changing. Even the most secular worldview rests on certain assumptions. For the modern scientific worldview, there are three crucial assumptions made:

  1. There are fundamental and consistent laws or forces that govern the behavior of the universe.
  2. These laws or forces are temporally and spatially consistent: they act the same way at all times and in all places.
  3. Humans can, through observation and application of reason, discover these laws or forces.

These claims are absolutely central to the modern scientific worldview, but they are absolutely improvable. So far, they’ve held up extraordinarily well, and there’s no real reason to doubt them in general, but it’s possible that they’ll turn out to be less than fully true. In fact, the application of quantum mechanics may be overturning some of these fundamental assumptions, or at least adding significant caveats to each.

Anyway, overall, I think these are good assumptions to work with. The question is, if modern Christians accept these positions, do they conflict with our faith? Lots of people may immediately assume the answer is yes, since Christianity seems to make claims that directly conflict with a scientific viewpoint, but it’s not nearly so simple. First off, we need to delve into some history before we can really answer this question. Secondly, we need to refine our understanding of the empirical method–which I’ll take up in a later post.

Many modern Christians assume a post-Newtonian worldview with ease, but the first Christians lived 1500 years before Isaac Newton. Their understanding of their universe was different from the one we operate with. It’s hard to be sure just how different; our basic understanding of the laws of nature is so fundamental to how we interpret every experience we have that it may be literally impossible for us to imagine perceiving reality differently. But if we want to understand the claims these people made, both spiritually and ontologically, we have to look at the worldview through which they understood reality. Such an approach will allow us to sort of “reverse engineer” theology to figure out how we might talk about the Resurrection in more modern language without disparaging or sidelining it.

There are largely two currents of thought that formed the philosophical and ontological viewpoints of Eastern Mediterranean people around the time of Christ. The most dominant would have been the broad set of ideas that made up the Greek philosophical tradition. Platonic thought, along with Stoicism, Cynicism, Pythagorianism, Epicurianism, and a host of other schools of thought largely developed from the period of 550-250 BCE. By the time of the first century BCE, it was Platonism that was dominant, though Stoicism and Cynicism were also still popular. Platonic thought divided the world into two distinct spheres: the realm of the forms, and the realm of the material. The latter realm is the one we live in: matter and energy interacting. The realm of form, according to Plato and his disciples, is a metaphysical sphere of existence totally distinct from and superior to the material. The realm of forms is prior to the material causally, having given birth to the material world through a complex set of emanations from the Source of everything, which Plato generally called the Good. The material world itself was understood as damaged, and the goal of life was to escape it.

This very brief and basic description will probably immediately remind most readers of lots of ideas in contemporary Christianity. The template for what would become stock Christian ideas about the structure of reality and the afterlife are clearly present, and this is no accident, because in its first few centuries, Christians would use a neo-Platonic framework to describe and defend their fatih. But we need to talk about one other worldview present at the time of the early Church, one that was sidelined early on but is crucial in our effort to understand the experiences of the first Christians.

Jesus and his disciples, of course, were not Greek. They were Aramaic-speaking Hebrews, Jews. Although Greek philosophical and even religious thought had been well-known in Judea since at least the time of Alexander’s conquests (the Sadduccees, mentioned in the New Testament but rarely if ever after the fall of the second temple, were probably the group most open to Greek religious thought), traditional Hebrew ontology was radically different. For one thing, it was much less speculative and systematic. Whereas Greek philosophy largely discarded with traditional Greek polytheism (in fact it was the charge of corrupting the youth of Athens with atheism that Socrates was convicted and sentenced to death), Hebrew ontology is tied intimately with the Hebrew religion. No complicated metaphysics was proposed, God was understood as one, transcendent reality which created, upheld, and governed everything. Whereas Greek philosophy asked detailed, reductionist questions about how nature worked at a basic level, Hebrew ontology tended to be more anthropological and historical, talking about how God was interacting with humans, and what future lay ahead for humanity. Hebrew ontology also was not dualistic, it didn’t divide the world into two realms. In the Hebraic worldview there was just one reality, and speculation about God’s nature was either discouraged or outright banned, for fear of slipping into the idolatry of an idea.

I think it’s clear that each of these two ontologies would yield a radically different way of coming to terms with a wide range of questions, and especially for how to understand something like the Resurrection. Crucially, it was Hebrews–not Greeks–who claimed to have experienced the Resurrection. But just as crucially, it was Greeks, or other Gentiles, who developed Christian theology from the end of the first century onward. So the Resurrection was experienced and mediated through the Hebraic ontology, but then “translated” into the Greek one for explanation and dissemination. And I think much was probably lost in this translation.

From the perspective of Hebrew ontology, if a miraculous event occurred, the only question was, “is this event consistent with what we believe about God”, since God was understood as all-powerful and directly engaged in the workings of the world. So the Resurrection was likely immediately understood and accepted as vindication of Jesus’ teachings and innocence. The message was political and social: the oppressed of the world, though dominated, crushed, and murdered, will, in the end, be vindicated by God. This interpretation is hardly unique to the Jews of the early Jesus movement–the great prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah spoke of God’s action in the same way. This is the fabric of Hebraic ontology: an all-powerful, redemptive God acting to bring out justice in the world. But the Greek viewpoint was, as we have seen, quite different. For the Greek, the most crucial question was, how could this event occur? How did it work, mechanically? Especially puzzling would have been the seeming confusion of the two realms: the form and the material. In claiming that Jesus was divine, Greeks would have experienced a sort of cognitive dissonance: no human can be divine, divinity was understood as limited to the realm of forms. So the very terms of the event didn’t translate well into Greek thinking.

So, what does all of this mean for us today? First and foremost, when we talk about the Resurrection, we need to be careful and clear: those who experienced it didn’t understand reality the way we do. They experienced the risen Jesus as physically yet mysteriously present to them, and accepted it along the lines of their worldview, which allowed for all sorts of miracles. But for us–like many contemporary Greeks–their claims are hard to swallow. Does this mean that their claims are simply and in-arguably false? Not necessarily. But it does mean that had the same event occurred with a community that understood the world differently, it might have been described in radically different terms. So we have to ask what the event really means to us, today. In other words, we have to not only be concerned with ontological questions–what is, how do things work–but also epistemological ones–how do we interpret reality, how do we evaluate claims. This complicates things considerably. I’m going to take up these issues in subsequent posts in the Talking About God series, which, it seems, will continue on for many posts yet to come.

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5 thoughts on “Talking About God, Part 5: Translating Faith

  1. You say that the fundamental experience for Christians is the resurrection. I would think that the fundamental experience for Christians would be Jesus’s teachings. Why is that not the case, as it very obviously is not?
    In addition, you speak as though any of the differing accounts of the resurrection were written by anyone who witnessed one or another of these differing accounts. Yet, we know that is not true, given the length of time between the supposed resurrection and the time when the first of the gospels was written. Will you discuss this in future posts or do you really, literally believe the resurrection happened?
    These are real questions, not attempts to be argumentative. I have just today discovered this site, have been impressed, and have many questions to explore on my own, particularly since I was raised in a fundamentalist church and now, living in south Alabama, am surrounded by such. The earlier posts on the nature of god as transcendent, imminent, and redemptive were not a part of my religious education, which might account for the fact that I left the church in 1968! 🙂 I have searched, explored, questioned, ignored, denied, gone back, and left again in the years since, and it seems I just can’t leave it (my questions) alone!
    So, those are, in fact, real questions, and I hope you will recognize them as such.
    Namaste.
    (One more questions – why doesn’t Christianity have a greeting as beautiful as “namaste”?)

  2. Pingback: Talking About God, Part 5 1/2: Answers for Dianne | Life's a Lap

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