Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Religion's entry point

Jeff has a good, thorough post up at Issues in Mormon Doctrine. While I don't think I have the skills to tackle the questions in the way they need to be, I certainly enjoy fundamental questions like this.

Since so many points are made in this post, I thought I would try and answer a few that jumped out at me. Instead of adding this to his blog, I figure I will do it hear. Things will be rather tangential.

Many religionists, however, might want to call their ultimate epistemic claims authoritative by expertise as well, after all, God knows everything and that's why we should accept His claims. Nevertheless, this authority is qualitatively different than that claimed by scientists. For starters, this Authority is always hidden from us. He is unable to give His own testimony, instead relying upon the authority of position granted to the chosen few. Secondly and similarly, these claims to expertise are shrouded in mystery. No attempts are made, nor can they be, to verify this Expert's methods. Whereas the verifiable expertise of the scientist is ultimately based in experience, the unverifiable expertise of religion is filtered through the illegitimate authority of position and is ultimately shrowded in impenetrable mystery.

I don't think I accept this point. I think God's knowledge is certainly knowable and communicable. However, I think dissemination of this knowledge may be impractical. For instance, if 6 billion people were asking a single prof the answer for every question they had, he might not be able to answer much. There would have to be a way to filter things down to important questions. Since I think God has much more to do than deal with just us right now, things are even more limited. Of course not many people accept the idea of such a limited God.

However this doesn't seem to be the main point. Verification seems to be the issue. The contention is that religion needs to be reliable. To me, reliability must exist in balance with accessibility. If people have different ways of conceiving God, interpreting context, and reaching conclusions, the entry point for revelation is rather large. There is not one way to receive it. Certainly there could be, but then the people who do not experience things in similar ways would be left out. Look at the problems we have with people assuming the spirit can only be felt by a burning bossom. It seems part of the problem is our assumption of inherit uniformity. We seem to accept the idea that spiritual information could in fact be disseminated in the way everyday knowledge is. However this is based on an assumption that there is a common way to communicate. For mormons this would have been standardized in the pre-mortal life, for other Christians, it would have been part of how God made us.

Ignoring the creedal Christian approach, I don't know if we should assume that we actually knew how to communicate with God overly well in the pre-mortal life. Things could well have been close to the hit and miss fare we have now (hence a possible need for Christ as a pre-mortal mediator between us and the Father). If this is the case, it only stands to reason that our communication skills would now be quite varied. Perhaps part of this mortal experience is to standardize the way we communicate, forcing us to come to partial terms with this variety.

If we agree communication skills may be varied, there must be a compromise between access and reliability. Greater access means less rigor and lower reliability. Communication is fuzzy as it conforms to individual backgrounds, skils, and previous experience. This compounds interpretive problems. This is not necessarily bad, just not scientific. Basically we have numerous people running wild with applications that are taken out of context and applied as specifics when they really may be quite vague or contextually dependent.

Why? Well I think we certainly do have a tendency to avoid vagueness. I think we also have a tendency to expect revelation to be infallible, not withstanding human conveyance and interpretation. We avoid enforcing revelatory rigor because it certainly isn't our job and certainly not within our skill set. So perhaps the answer to the whole issue is to take a look at the type of religious experience that is common, and hence testable. From this we should be able to get a list of things that can be concluded.

To be continued

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

October Favorites

Council in heaven
Geoff talks about the idea that there may be quite a few physical worlds in which we live and progress. Like many others I may be misunderstanding his post, but it seems one of the things being said is that the Kingdoms are descriptors of personal character rather than exclusionary spheres of existence. Thus a traditional telestial person who has been around for a while may be sharing an existence with a traditional celestial person who has not been through much yet. They both have the same character, only one has had to suffer and pay for their sins themselves going through several more steps, the other used the atonement, saving quite a few steps.

angels, what good are they?
Don asks why angels are doing things that the godhead should be capable of? This is an interesting question to me. It seems one can explain this by saying
1. God lets angels act for them so they continue progressing in his image. In this way they learn how to act like he does. ie the standard reason we give for our laity having callings.
2. God is a busy person and uses this help to accomplish those things he feels are important, and are impractical for him to do himself. (Kurt's comment)
3. God's unlimited protestant like omnipotence means that angels are used because we are not worthy to experience things directly from him. Intermediates are necessary. (no Catholics seemed to comment)
4. The godhead is the vehicle in whose name angels act. ie, the play the part thye need to as long as things are seamless. I forget the fancy name given to this type of role playing.

The main issue at Issues in Mormon Doctrine took a while for comments to get roling. You could probably hear all the gears grinding as people worked through the problem or stalled out from the challenge. I still have a few posts that are half finished from tangential ideas brought up.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Religion - the purpose of a shared story

As I was reading the final chapter in Twitchell's "Branded Nation", there was an interesting statement, "humans congregate to share stories." From this perspective shared history, commonly understood images and attitudes are what enables communication and hence society.

My last few posts seemed to have been dealing with the purpose of traditional religion. Perhaps our strongly individualized society has lost sight of the benefits of shared stories. Indeed, the book of mormon seems to stress how important unification was. Unification, in their case based on religion, seems to mirror their level of righteousness, and ultimately their survival.

Perhaps it is an overly selfish idea to believe that we can discover tall the mysteries of godliness through an individual based exploration. Perhaps traditional religious tendencies are important because of the need for strongly uniting stories. Something is needed that enables disparate groups to share a common language (or story) thus enabling communication.

Now I don't think brand spin is what is sought for this unifying story. It seems like one purpose of religion is to force us to admit that what I can do will only take me so far. Why? Well one could argue that limiting ourselves to one's own experience will only actualize things that already exist rather than reveal things that are new.

Personally, I find this explanation rather weak. Instead it seems more logical to believe that limiting ourselves to our own capabilities may result in a plodding progression that distances ourselves from those who are at the forefront of creation. Using more religious terminology, one would say that relying upon ourselves as a light distances us from Christ and the way in which he reveals the Father.

Now if there is a point destination for god, one really has a hard time arguing than slow steady progression will never lead us to exaltation. Even if relying on ourselves results in an incredibly slow progression, with infinite time, all that matters is the direction, not the degree of the slope. Because of this one usually interjects that some hurdles must be passed that allow continued progression. ie, you must have the gift of the holy ghost or else you can only go so far, you must have a temple marriage or you can only go so far, you must be baptized or you can only go so far, etc. However one could take a different approach and say with a continually increasing God, the only way to stay in communion with him is to progress at a sufficiently quick pace. Abraham 3:19 seems a possible hint at this, although there are certainly many other explanations.

With the idea of eternal increase though, one certainly runs into a problem of divergence. Even with the idea of co-eternalness with God, the vast difference between our capabilities and those of Christ or God quickly become unbridgeable. So how does the chasm get crossed? The only way I know of is through Christ. Somehow he has the key to staying in contact with the Father. However, this idea is problematic. It assumes that as God increases he is somehow unable to stay in contact with those who do not progress. This seems rather improbable. Perhaps though, the way that real two way communication can occur is limited to certain channels.

In essence while things like face to face communication may be feasible, they are rather unworkable. After all if God is in time and subject to natural constraints, having a one on one talk with a sequence of trillions of people could be rather time consuming. Instead it seems like there would have to be a venue by which two way communication could occur. So I wonder if this may not be one of the roles that religion plays. Certainly one could say that religion facilitates us hearing what God has to say, in the way that he has chosen to say it. Yet if one way communication is all that God does, then Biblical fundamentalism or some such strategy is reasonable. I am hesitant to accede this. My take on the scriptures is that there is an equal amount of becoming as there is of listening. When phrased in denominational appropriate terms, I am sure that many people would agree. However it seems like religion is doing more than forcing us into a certain mode of listening, it is also forcing us into a certain mode of communicating. Perhaps this is just to create a shared story in which we can all participate, helping out others. Perhaps though there is more to it than that.

Thursday, October 13, 2005

The Gospel brand

While there are some superb chapters in the Book of Mormon, my favorite is 3 Nephi 27. In this chapter Christ lays out the essence of his Gospel.

27. Verily, verily, I say unto you, this is my gospel; and ye know the things that ye must do in my church; for the works which ye have seen me do that shall ye also do; for that which ye have seen me do even that shall ye do;

Interpretations of this idea are usually pretty constant. We should follow the example of Christ. However this idea certainly downplays philosophical styled theology. The religious branding tendencies I have been talking about seem to be give sophisticated theology much more weight than the Gospel in this chapter seems to. In fact from this chapter one could get an idea that detailed theology, like faith vs. works, trinitarian considerations, etc really aren't overly important. However downplaying institutionalized religion and doctrines certainly doesn't seem what Christ is saying either.

A downplay of sophisticated, brand expanded theology tends to flow from a belief that abstract details aren't important in and of themselves. Rather they are important as distinguishing details. In this sense they just help one chose which path has divine approval. However, if we believe that branding details really are irrelevant, it seems like a slippery slope is created. People may feel that their idiosyncratic take on religion is as appropriate as any other take, institutionalized or not. In fact, like many people today, one could be tempted to say that traditional religious conventions and roles, like the law of Moses - appropriate for stiff necked people, but easily outdated by an increase in social sophistication and intelligence, or by increased needs and abilities.

Now I am never very keen when people start thinking they are always the exception to a rule. I think the Nephite's extended use of Mosaic law is a good counter point to the modern, "I'm sophisticated enough to be an exception" tendency. What I find interesting in 3 Nephi 27 comes about as one starts looking at the way businesses and large projects are run.

When working as a team on a specific project, there are usually quite a few different ways things can get carried out. You can have very rigid management, you can have laissez faire direction, or anything in between. Usually what matters most is that people adapt to what ever method is chosen, avoiding working at cross purposes. It is very hard for a manager to run a rigid time lined project when some members are accomplishing their tasks with laissez faire open endedness. Others can not follow because they have to reconstruct the mindset of all the underlying pieces to predict how details need to be accomplished.

Now this is not a problem if everyone is creating things on their own. It is not much of a problem if we are collecting outside help. Ultimately this is because as the sole filter, everything will mesh. However, once one is in a position of following rather than creating, things change. They change even more when one is following a large goal and simultaneously directing people underneath you. In this case, one needs to be very certain of the methodology and direction chosen by the head for the project. If not, things will not mesh.

And so it is interesting that Christ has chosen imitation as the model we are to follow. While not to shocking for people with religious backgrounds, it is interesting to see where this puts us. It certainly doesn't put us in a position to brand a product, expanding on rather insignificant details. It doesn't even put us in much of a position to choose the way we want direction. Instead it puts us firmly in a role of adaption. Adapting to what? Well the methodology chosen to relay information. And what is that? Well vs. 7, 28, 29 certainly give us the answer. "In his name" certainly implies emulation.

And so it seems like Christ is using the vehicle our natural religious, zealot like tendencies despite the harm that religious fundamentalism may have. (pharisees, muslim & christian extremists, leavening of the gospel, etc). And so even if one sees little point to some rituals or religious behaviour, it seems like what matters is how they are used in our adaptation to Christ's chosen methodology rather than any intrinsic value they may have when isolated.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Branding Religion

As I finish up "Branded Nation", one recurring point is that product saturation leads to indistinguishable goods which leads to branding (putting a story to your product to differentiate it). It seems as if religion fits into the process.

There is a relative abundance of religions in North America. Numerous Christian sects have given the consumer power of choice. While specialization could occur, niche markets can never be very big or competitive. Instead, large suppliers tend to dominate. However, to be a successful large supplier one needs to meet mainstream needs. Thus goods tend to become interchangeable. As a result of this relatively superficial differences are exaggerated, stories are told about interchangeable goods creating a sense of uniqueness. In this sense, what the consumer wants is the best bargain with a strong sense of differentiation.

Of course, to my mind these two things are mutually exclusive. True differentiation will never have mainstream appeal. Bargains can never get produced for anything other than a broad market. So the competitive environment a consumer creates demands the production of brand.

So how does this apply to religion? Well it means the demands that people have for their religion to be consumer oriented may have quite a few unintended consequences. It certainly means proselytizing that is based on meeting consumer needs may be a slippery slope. And what does this imply? To me it means for a religion to keep any sort of authentic, not branded, identity, there will always be a cliff that the consumer must jump off. While some may argue that religion should be a smooth transition building on previous beliefs, I wonder if this strategy can only function as an exception and never as a rule?