Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Holiday Reading

Yesterday I boarded a plane for Belgium. Regular readers here will note that this is not extraordinary, since I've been doing this for quite some time now. The best thing about these journeys, besides the amazingly good beer that is made available to me, is that I'm afforded many hours of unfettered reading. Rural Belgium, let's say, is not the hotbed of attention-diverting activity. To my horror, though, upon unpacking yesterday I learned that I'd only packed one book for my week's stay: Joseph Stephen O'Leary's Religious Pluralism and Christian Truth -- not the most compelling title or subject, I must confess. One can only blog and read blogs so much, however, so I've been dipping into bits of it. Turgid prose notwithstanding, there is some very good stuff in here -- his is an understanding of 'truth', more rationally aesthetic than philosophical, religious or otherwise, I can get on board with. I'll spare you the details of that, though.

A quote:

[I]t may be doubted whether any of the great traditions is yet ready to face fully the consequences of its historicity. Since Kant, a basic task of thinking has been to face our finitude, to put ourselves back in our skin, to return to where we already are. If the religions refuse to see the real conditions of their historical existence, the reason is that they transfer to their language, epresentations and history the ultimacy that properly appertains only to that supreme reality to which these have served to witness, thus falling into self-idolatry. 'What is basically wrong with humanity', according to Simone Weil, is 'the substitution of means for ends. It it this reversal of the relation between means and ends, this basic madness, which accounts for everything absurd and bloody throughout history'. Only by taking stock of their extreme fragility can those 'means' which are the religions testify to their 'end' -- to that mystery which can be felicitously named in certain conditions, but which eludes any definitive grasp.

[. . .]

What lends urgency to the problem of meaning created by religious pluralism is the pressure of an ulterior problem, that of truth. To appreciate all religions seems to imply that real assent is refused to any. The great world religions lose their appearance of permanence when one treats them as human institutions born in function of the needs of an epoch, deploying the range of their possibilities over time, and now, to a skeptical observer, nearing the exhaustion of their resources. Yet as they broach a millennial threshold the religions seem in better shape than had been foretold, their mighty engines purring, their rich traditions relucent, despite -- or rather because of -- critical contestation and pluralist dispersion. Perhaps the greatest challenge they face is that of assessing, rationally and responsibly, their status and function, so that in addition to arousing faith and devotion they will also continue to illuminate human minds questing for what is not only meaningful but true.

[. . .]

The question 'how true is religion?', may best be met by asking another question: 'how is religion true?' According to what modalities can religious propositions legitimately be expected to make sense? What sort of reference should we expect them to have? Under what conditions are they statements of truth? How does this truth differ from other kinds of truth? To what procedures of verification or falsification should religious propositions be subject? Since religion is not a unitary entity, the answer to these questions is likely to vary from tradition to tradition.

Many people think of religions as 'supreme fictions', poetic interpretations of the world with no objective cognitive content. They plausibly suggest that the reality underlying the fabrications of religious discourse is nothing more than 'the foul rag and bone shop of the heart'. Yet within the constructions of the religious imagination, so easily dismissed as wishful projection, there are found at key points words which rupture the predictable fabcrications and allow a glimmer of the ultimate reality to penetrate.

A vital religion harbours a capacity for stepping outside the circle of inherited concepts to mime their breakdown before what they attempt to designate. This can be done by an act that speaks at a pre-conceptual level, as when Zen Buddhism names some homely object as the locus of ultimate truth, or when Christianity points to some despised neighbour as the presence of Christ. It can be done in a secondary way by inventing new words or words with new meanings ('emptiness', 'charity', 'grace') which spell an overhaul for the entire discourse in which they are inserted. Such creative acts and words are experienced as a step in the direction of lived truth, rather than as defensive moves to prop up a crumbling belief-system. Assessment of the basic revelation-event (as we may call them), and of the detailed historical claims and doctrinal underpinnings that attend them, seems to demand that we exit from religion as conventionally understood to retrieve its heritage in a more discerning, critical mode, making explicit the subversive potential lodged in it.

Not sure why I share that. Consider it my tireless attempt to justify my interest in, if not adherence to, religion.