Wednesday, June 12, 2013

On Exceptionalism, Liberalism and Spirituality

On the internet list “Liberals Like Christ” on which I have participated for years, we have been discussing the questions of ethics, religion and secularism. Today’s exchange was particularly interested.

The original writer is making a rather common critique of religion which first caricaturizes religions by their most primitive, fundamentalist representatives and then moves to assert the superiority of secularism in light of that primitive state. We see this move regularly in the thought of people like Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens. It’s a rather common form of reductionism of the very complex reality that is organized religion. And at some level, it engages in a bit of intellectual dishonesty in that reductionist process, a bit of the logical fallacy ad absurdum.

Exceptionalism

The first argument asserts that religious people tend to labor under notions of entitlement and see their religion’s engagement of the world in terms of Exceptionalism. To wit:

There is a whole body of people in every country who ascribe to the religion thereof who believes they are special and entitled, and that those who are not them are expendable. Another large group thinks controlling is loving.

This is my response:

Of course that hardly exhausts the possibilities. Exceptionalism is a many-headed hydra. We Americans are particularly prone to this malady in our dealings with other countries. And we have a long legacy of a rather pathological strain of Exceptionalism that has played out in the annihilation of the native peoples of North America and the enslavement of the Africans imported here to do the labor we thought beneath our dignity. The self-appointed White Man’s Burden that is the legacy of those pathologies continues to inform our dealings with their descendants and peoples around the world our military and corporate interests have subdued and dominate.

Here is one of the places that I think religion is potentially a corrective to those tendencies. Notions of original blessing that come at the end of the Genesis 1 creation accounts suggests that everything in the created world is “very good” and thus deserving of respect and preservation. This would go a long way toward addressing the attitudes that have resulted in the ecological crisis we now face. Moreover, the same account speaks of human beings created in the image of G-d. This would require a respect for the divine we see in the other as a matter of course. It is the basis for  constructs such as the Golden Rule (Do unto others…) and the second of the Great Commandments summing up Hebraic law (Love your neighbor as yourself).

The modern derivatives of those understandings are what we understand as human rights. The sages of the Enlightenment merely stripped these values of their religious clothing. Clearly, it’s quite possible to practice the ethos embodied in these religious teachings without being religious.

I think religions go wrong when they claim that without their teachings people are doomed to immoral behavior. The principles – and the results - are the same whether cast in religious or secular clothing. Indeed, I’d go one step further and say that ideas like the image of G-d, the Golden Rule and the Second Great Commandment are not true because they are in the scriptures. Rather, they are in the scriptures because their writers recognized them to be true.

The writer has previously argued that fact and reason are the only valuable bases for dealing with human ethical dilemmas, a problematic assertion at best, I think. In a move that conflates liberalism with secularism and would see both as based only in fact and reason, thus preferable to the irrationality of religionists, the argument continues:

Liberalism

The mistake liberals make, if you can call it that is that we do not force people or threaten people or trick people into thinking this way. They have to come to it on their own.

My response:

I think the best thing liberals can do is to be true to their fundamental principles: freedom of thought and expression, recognition and respect of human dignity, commitment to justice for all and equal opportunity, valuing of the good creation, our fragile island home (to quote the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer). We should never reduce our values to mere reason. That idolatrizes reason and ignores the many other ways that human beings come to understanding and make meaning of their lives. We humans are simply more complex than that.

On Spirituality
In all honesty, I am unclear as to how the preceding comment leads to the last but it is this last comment that prompted me to think the most. I saw the comment as a challenge to define my terms, to spell out what I see as spirituality. My response follows the original writer’s question.


If you call that spirituality, then so be it. But, I would call it being humane or human or perhaps if you must, humanist.

I see depth of human experience in all its forms as spiritual. I see a recognition of the interconnectedness of all being as spiritual. I see the duties to self, others and the world around us that arise from that recognition as spiritual. I see the wisdom of human experience, regardless of its form, as spiritual. I see the imagination and ideals of the prophetic artist, writer, musician, dancer, actor, architect as spiritual. I see the glimpses of truth that are present in every religious system but never complete in any as well as in wide ranges of secular thought as spiritual. I see human beings living into the depth of their existence and to the limits of their potential as spiritual.

Finally, I see existential trust of the universe as essentially a good place as a spiritual affirmation. It is one I am willing to make and I hope that others will find their way to do the same.

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The Rev. Harry Scott Coverston, J.D., Ph.D.
Member, Florida Bar (inactive status)
Priest, Episcopal Church (Dio. of El Camino Real, CA)
Lecturer: Humanities, Religion, Philosophy of Law
University of Central Florida, Orlando


 If the unexamined life is not worth living, surely an unexamined belief system, be it religious or political, is not worth holding.

Most things of value do not lend themselves to production in sound bytes. ++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++++

1 comment:

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