Thursday, April 21, 2016

What’s in a Name? Visions of the Holy One

"What's in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet."
–William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet (1597)

In the world religions and humanities courses I teach from time to time, I do an exercise with my classes that I picked up from an Integrity gathering in Atlanta years ago. I first ask students to write their name on the front of a piece of paper and then, when given a word, to flip the paper over and write the first thing that comes to their minds. 

The word is “God.”

I give them a minute to write their responses then ask each student to read their word and I record their answers on the board. What quickly results is a visual display of their understandings of the concept of G-d which range from theological constructions (savior, judge, Bible) to understandings expressing doubt and occasionally anger (non-existent, myth, pathological).

Once all the responses are recorded, I ask “Which one is right?” Inevitably an excellent discussion ensues which allows students to recognize that the word many of them use regularly without second thought is multivalent in meaning. It is quite possible that two of them could be using the same word and meaning something very, very different by it.

This exercise was an eye opener for me years ago at that Integrity meeting in Atlanta (thank you, Mark Graham) and it provides an important learning experience for students today which extends beyond the immediate application in world religions courses: much of what we know about life turns on what we bring to the process of knowing.

This revelation flies in the face of a natural tendency to believe that our own understanding of the deity, human nature and the relationship between the two is self-evidently true and thus normative for everyone. It arises out of a presumption that everyone knows my understanding is right or they ought to.  

But clearly that is not true. And why would it be?

Healthy Minds and Sin Sick Souls

 A century ago early sociologist of religion William James wrote The Varieties of Religious Experiences in which he delineated the two primary experiences of the divine he observed in the people he studied. In figures like his contemporaries Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman he observed "One can but recognize in such writers as these the presence of a temperament organically weighted on the side of cheer and fatally forbidden to linger, as those of opposite temperament linger, over the darker aspects of the universe." James called this temperament the healthy minded soul.

In contrast, figures like Martin Luther and Leo Tolstoy embodied what James called the sick soul, a melancholy vision in which “[t]he world now looks remote, strange, sinister, uncanny. Its color is gone, its breath is cold, there is no speculation in the eyes it glares with.” James analogizes this vision to a quote from an asylum patient: "It is as if I lived in another century, I see everything through a cloud…"

James believed that while the healthy-minded were happier and led more fulfilling lives, the sick souls held greater insight into the human condition and were far more numerous. Taking James’ dichotomy one step further, English scholar Francis Newman, the younger brother of his more famous sibling Cardinal Newman, observed “God has two families of children on this earth, the once-born and the twice-born,” distinguishing the vision of G_d of once-born from their twice-born counterparts: “They see God, not as a strict Judge, not as a Glorious Potentate; but as the animating Spirit of a beautiful harmonious world, Beneficent and Kind, Merciful as well as Pure.”

Catholic and Protestant Imaginations

Toward the end of the last century, Roman Catholic scholar David Tracy would write of two visions of the divine which focused not only on characteristics attributed to the deity but also determined the relationship of that deity to human beings. The Analogical Imagination sees the world as a revelation of G-d, the good Creation which St. Francis saw as a riot of ongoing disclosures of the divine presence all around us. 

The Dialectical Imagination reflects a world in which the divine presence is radically absent. Analogical visions see the world in the ways in which it is like, analogous to, the divine. Dialectical visions see the world in the ways in which it is different from and thus can be contrasted with the divine. Developed further by Roman Catholic sociologist Andrew Greeley in work entitled The Catholic Imagination, the two competing, though sometimes overlapping visions could be seen as follows

Analogical Vision:

·         God reveals Himself in his creation.
·         Assumes a God who is present in the world, disclosing Himself in and through creation. Hence, the world and all its events, objects, and people tend to be somewhat like God.
·         Society is a "sacrament" of God, a set of ordered relationships governed by both justice and love, that reveal, however, imperfectly, the presence of God. Society is "natural" and "good." For humans and their "natural" response to God is social.

Dialectical Vision:

·         God is over against the world and its communities and artifacts.
·         Assumes a God who is radically absent from the world and who discloses Himself only on rare occasions. Hence, the world (and all its events, objects, and people) tend to be radically different from God.
·         Society is "God-forsaken" and unnatural and oppressive. The individual stands over/against society and not integrated into it. The human becomes fully human only when s/he is able to break away from social oppression and relate to the absent God as a completely free individual.

Tracy had noted that the Analogical vision corresponded historically to much of the Roman Catholic tradition, particularly its Franciscan incarnation. Correspondingly, the Dialectic vision corresponded historically to the Protestant tradition of the Reformers who sought to distinguish themselves and their vision from the Roman Catholics. 

Roman Catholic sociologist Andrew Greeley found that this dichotomy largely explained the differences in these two major movements within the Christian tradition though there were exceptions. The more Augustinian the vision of the Roman Catholic, perhaps seen in the Jansenist movement of history and the traditionalist movement of today, the more it tends toward the Dialectical vision.  Conversely, some expressions of liberal Protestantism which have left the Augustinian roots of the Reformation behind might well be much closer to the Analogical vision than the more dialectic visions of their Reformer brethren.

Greeley also found that images of G-d tended to vary along the Analogical to Dialectical continuum and were often predictive of social and political attitudes. Using data from the General Social Survey, Greeley observed that Analogical visions of the divine tended to be portrayed in images of mother, spouse, lover and friend while contrasting Dialectical visions more often took the form of father, master, judge and king. 

Correlating those visions with attitudes toward the world, Greeley found that Analogical visions corresponded with support for social safety nets, equality for disenfranchised minorities, opposition to state killing, less obsession with issues of sexuality and more concern for environmental issues. Dialectical visions corresponded with just the opposite.

Much in American politics today might be explained through the Tracy/Greeley model. The communitarian vision of Democrats Bernie Sanders and, to a lesser extent, Hillary Clinton, reflect a more Analogical vision while the hyperindividualist and hypercompetitive vision of Republicans generally and its Tea Party wing in particular, reflect a more Dialectical vision. 

Again, it is important to recognize that these models are ideal types operating out of generalizations based upon commonalities within members of groups, generalizations designed to provide a means of understanding the way human beings conceive and respond to the world in which they live. Actual types (i.e., individuals) are inevitably more complex than any ideal type can convey.

America’s Four Gods

A study of how Americans understand G-d has been recently released by two sociologists of religion at Baylor University. A summary of their study an be found here. Using a national religious survey they devised, the conductors of the survey sought to ascertain how Americans would respond to two basic questions about their understanding of the deity and their relationship, if any, to that deity. The questions were: 

1. Does God interact with the world? 
2. Does God judge the world? 

From their results, four models of the deity and their prevalence were observed:

1. Authoritative – engaged and judgmental (31%)
2. Benevolent – engaged and non-judgmental (24%)
3. Critical – disengaged and judgmental (16%)
4. Distant – disengaged and non-judgmental (24%)

The study also found that the proportion of Americans who classify themselves as atheists remains steady at about 5% of respondents as it has for the past several decades even as the percentage of Americans who claim no affiliation with organized religion, often described as the “nones,” now accounts for about one in four Americans.

Like preceding work by Tracy and Greeley, the Baylor study found that the model of G-d which given individuals or groups of people found compelling turned in part on socio-cultural factors. The region of the country in which one resides plays a major factor with the authoritative deity who is actively involved in daily life and highly prone to judge the morality of individual and societal conduct broadly observable among evangelicals in America’s Bible Belt. Conversely, the distant, non-judgmental deity of highly ethically focused traditions is most observable on America’s self-described progressive Pacific rim. People of color often found the Critical model of god, who does not exercise an active role in the world while reserving judgment for the afterlife, more compelling.

The study also found that the appeal of a given model also turned on personal factors, particularly one’s familial upbringing. Disciplinarian parenting often produced authoritative models of G-d in adults while parenting focused on fairness, equality and enticing behaviors without punishment often produced Benevolent models of G-d.  

And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor

A witty saying attributed to sources as disparate as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Mark Twain observes that “God created man in his own image. And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.” How we construct the image of G-d we hold and unconsciously offer to others as normative inevitably says as much about us as the subject matter we would describe. It reveals our visions of how the world should be and how we see and interact with one another. Becoming conscious of our visions of G-d and why we hold that vision is an important step in becoming honest with ourselves. It is also a necessary predicate for holding any discussions of our faith in even a modicum of intellectual honesty.  

We do not all mean the same things even as we use the same words to point toward articles of faith.  And we cannot in good faith presume that everyone either holds our understandings or ought to. We cannot simply defer to "the Bible" as if it is self-evident and self-explanatory since we are all reading the same words yet coming to different conclusions as to their meaning. The notion of a faith “once delivered” is no doubt enticing to many but it is neither consistent with the history of our tradition nor does it describe any given commodity we all share today. 

That pesky potential question “When you say that, what do you mean by it?” simply never goes away.  

The challenge that scholars from William James to those conducting the current studies at Baylor pose to us as people of faith is to become conscious of our presumptions and as honest with ourselves and others as we can be in our discussions of what we believe. While this is no doubt daunting if not annoying to many, the alternative – operating out of presumptions of which we are not consciously aware and thus failing to be honest with ourselves and others about what we believe and why –is simply a lot less compelling to people of good faith. 

In the end we owe ourselves and others more than that. 

Harry Scott Coverston
Orlando, Florida

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

Most things worth considering do not come in sound bites.

Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world's grief. Do justly, now. Love mercy, now. Walk humbly now. You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to abandon it. – Rabbi Rami Shapiro, Wisdom of the Ages, Commentary on Micah 6:8


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