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Archive for the ‘Narrative theology’ Category

I run across arguments on Twitter frequently on the subject of whether atheism is a religion.

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People claiming that it is often have a desire to remove the teaching of evolution from public schools on the grounds that such instruction constitutes establishment of religion–taking a valid argument about separation of religion and state and twisting it to its opposite–or at least to insert the teaching of creationism. But let’s test the claim here.

First, we must consider what religion means. This is a difficult subject to define, since the beliefs in question deal with things that are often outside the logical or factual, but here’s my attempt:

Religion: a set of beliefs and practices dealing with questions of ultimate meaning, often including the supernatural, that approaches said questions through narrative means.

Notice that I didn’t say “necessarily including the supernatural.” Some branches of Taoism and Buddhism, for example, see no need to deal in matters beyond the natural world. But the essential characteristic is using narrative means to answer questions.

Now let’s address the question of whether an atheist is a religious person. There are three possible positions to hold regarding divine beings: atheism, agnosticism, or theism. A theist asserts the existence of one or more gods, regardless of the particular variations in belief about those gods. Atheism, by contrast, asserts the positive statement that no god exists. The third category, agnostic, states that there isn’t sufficient evidence to give a certain answer to the question of the existence of any god, whether yes or no.

Two of those categories, then, are beliefs–atheism and theism–while agnosticism is a lack of belief. So is atheism a religion?

Curiously, not even all theists are religious, at least according to my definition. A theist may believe that some divine being exists without finding meaning in stories of the gods and without engaging in any relevant practices. But do atheists engage in religious belief or activity?

Some do, though they may be doing it as a parody or a social event. But essentially, atheism, while a belief, is a rejection of religious methodology. Its arguments aren’t based on narratives, and it makes no specific rituals obligatory. Thus atheism is a philosophy or a political ideology, but it is not fundamentally a religion.

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Today (22 November 2013) is the fiftieth anniversary of deaths of three famous persons:

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Aldous Huxley

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John F. Kennedy

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and C. S. Lewis.

The irony of that day is that Kennedy–a star on the rise, but not yet fulfilled–is the one whose death got the attention. Of course, he was the president of the United States, and someone that visibly powerful tends to draw the eye more than those whose influence plays out over centuries. Kennedy was glamorous and youthful, and while his education showed itself in his speeches and policies, his intellect didn’t challenge people in uncomfortable ways.

By contrast, Huxley warned us of the dangers of cheerful tyranny in A Brave New World. More importantly, he reminded us of transcendence, what he referred to as the perennial philosophy. His writings convinced me that science is not the only way to see the world. I have come to think of this as the theology of narratives. We comprehend the world on multiple levels, but storytelling is our primary mode of thought.

Lewis’s influence on me is broader. He was a vigorous debater, a teacher of the classics, and a fine literary critic. His stories were of varying quality from the heavy-handed Space Trilogy to the fun of his best known Chronicles of Narnia, but some of his narratives were profound. The Screwtape Letters works, whether we see the demons as fallen angels or as marketing executives. Till We Have Faces is a study of jealousy and of how human beings interact with the divine. And, of course, as a writer myself, it’s gratifying to see a scholar who comes to public attention as he reaches middle age.

But what of Kennedy? As I said above, he was potential without fulfillment. We love to play the game of counterfactuals, speculating about the Vietnam War or civil rights. Certainly, Kennedy was more cautious than Johnson and may have preferred the free market to the Great Society. We just don’t know. Like the lovers on the Grecian Urn, we are, with Kennedy, left in anticipation. His life was a story unfinished, and so we can only spin out the ending according to what our imaginations can conceive.

And that is the point. All our lives are stories, stories that we write for ourselves and tell to each other. The meaning that we find is in the narrative. If I may play with the ideas of “The Music of the Ainur,” written by Lewis’s friend, J. R. R. Tolkien, it is the duty and life of each of us to sing our theme in the cosmic fugue (thanks be to Carl Sagan) and our worthiness to use that theme to add to the total music.

Crossposted on Greg Camp’s Weblog.

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In a post on the Oghma Creative Media blog about genre, I told you why I like science fiction and related types of stories. I went on at length, but the short answer is that I love the world of Faerie, the world that the author gets to build. In that way, speculative storytelling is a lot like the myths that shape our culture.

But what about westerns?

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Gene Roddenberry did say that Star Trek was a wagon train to the stars, so there’s a connection, but this genre is typically defined as stories set west of the Mississippi River between the end of the Civil War and the death of Queen Victoria (points if you know that last reference). Yes, Lewis and Clark fan fiction could be a western, as could a tale about the doings to the left of the Allegheny Mountains in 1782, but the general idea is easy to understand.

So what is it that I like about westerns?

1. Research

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As I’ve said before, research is an essential part of good writing. That’s especially true if you’re going to dive into a genre that is known and defined. Yes, John Wayne schlepped a Colt Single Action Army revolver and a Winchester 1892 rifle in movies set well before those tools were available, but today, we’re less forgiving. Writers of westerns need to know the period. And that’s the thing: I love that time and place. Learning about it is fun, and I can immerse myself for hours in digging through books and websites. Of course, that can be a way to avoid writing, but we all have our weaknesses.

2. Ethos

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Remember in Lawrence of Arabia when the reporter asks our hero what attracts him to the desert? Lawrence answers, “It’s clean.” That may seem like a strange reply, given all the sweat and blood that he spills in that story, but what he meant was that the choices in a harsh environment are simple and stark. You fight with every ounce of your being to win against the odds and perhaps die anyway, or you die for sure. You survive by being worthy to meet that land and by joining in common cause with other good people. Sometimes, particularly if Clint Eastwood is the star, the morality tale becomes ambiguous, but the principle remains. A western is about good vs. evil, played out in a world that rewards the skillful.

3. Epic

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Westerns are the American genre. At the Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893, Frederick Jackson Turner gave a speech titled, The Significance of the Frontier in American History. His thesis was that our nation is defined by the concept of a frontier, a boundless horizon over which we can always journey. The fact that our frontiers are now closed, at least until we get serious again about pushing into the final frontier, only sharpens our desire for stories about staking our claim in the freedom of the wilderness. The fact that westerns also deal with that stake being driven through the heart of those who were in that wilderness before us is a good corrective to our unrestrained impulses. More than stories about our founding, more than the woes of slavery and the Civil War, more than the fight against fascism and communism, the western is a tale of who we are.

That’s my answer to why I like westerns. I even write them, if I may promote myself. If I didn’t love this kind of story, I wouldn’t read them, watch them, or write them. For the genre to survive, I need more of you to join me. Hit the trail, pilgrim, and I’ll see you out there.

Crossposted at Oghma Creative Media.

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As a non-Christian who was raised by fundamentalist parents and sent to religious schools–creationist, among other things–I look at the debate among Christians over evolution with nostalgic amusement. David Michael McFarlane, a student at Union Theological Seminary, recently wrote an article in The Huffington Post, asking whether Christians could give up creationism. He says that his faith doesn’t need a literal creation event some 6,000 years ago.

But fundamentalists insist that such an event is necessary. First, the text describes it, so it must have happened. But more importantly, without a Fall, there’s no need for a redeeming Christ. I’m sitting off on the sidelines nodding my head and saying, you finally figured it out, under my breath (not always), but there it is.

So let’s work with the premise that Christ is necessary. Let’s say that humans exist in a fallen state and have to be extracted from that.

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Let’s even say that until the life and death of Christ some 2,000 years ago, there was no way to elevate humans. Can’t we allow for the possibility that human beings were insufficiently developed before that point? Does it matter how they became that way–either by dropping down or simply by never having risen up? Christians preach that human beings aren’t worthy on their own. Nothing about accepting the science of evolution has to challenge that.

Of course, this would mean understanding that the Biblical stories are just that–stories. That is not meant to reduce the Bible in value. In fact, I regard stories as our most basic way of understanding the world. As I said, on this matter, I’m an outsider looking in, so it’s just a suggestion.

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Tuesday evening (14 May 2013), I attended a forum on faith and science. The panel and discussion leader were all creationists, and I won’t go into the debates that we had on scientific questions. What interests me for the moment was the question of whether the events described in the Bible (or in any other religious text) have to be historically true to make a claim on our belief. Now I am a philosophical pagan, so the doctrines of Christianity are to me a matter of abstract speculation, but if the fundamentalist version of that religion is true, I ignore it at my peril. (I’ll discuss Pascal’s wager later.)

To summarize, the literalist claim of Christianity is that human beings fell into sin–call it an ontological transformation, one category into another–and require a savior to be restored. The demand of this doctrine is that the two events were real not just in the narrative of the book, but also in history.

This strikes me as an unfortunate choice in its limitation of perspective. Consider the following from Aristotle’s Poetics:

It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen- what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular. By the universal I mean how a person of a certain type on occasion speak or act, according to the law of probability or necessity; and it is this universality at which poetry aims in the names she attaches to the personages. The particular is- for example- what Alcibiades did or suffered.

Let’s look at the Bible in these terms. Are human beings sinful? That depends on the definition of sin, but certainly, we can say that all of us have moral failings. Are we able to correct our condition on our own? I say yes, but it’s a valid interpretation of human nature to say no. Can belief in a story change our nature? Yes. The evidence of that is abundant.

Now there is a problem here in that our knowledge of the human condition is based on what we have observed, and history is one kind of observation. This takes us back to the debate over the necessity to assert that the events of the Fall and of Jesus’s life and death and resurrection are events that occurred outside of the books describing them.

The “sinful” nature of human beings can be observed continually. But the claim that one being became human and was sacrificed for us is an assertion about an event that if true, if unique. It is precisely a miracle, something that stands outside of the chain of cause and effect. Thus it does not qualify as data. Data is the plural of datum, one observation. Multiple observations are necessary to draw an inference. History is the accounting of events. We derive bigger ideas by looking at how one event makes another occur. The claim about Jesus is that his life is one event that affects everything.

Thus we are left with the question of whether one event is sufficient to change the way we are. My answer is yes, but in the sense that any story is sufficient. People who convert to Christianity and change their lives do so because they hear the story. But the same is true about many stories. Americans tell each other the stories of our Founders or of the Civil War, and these stories shape the way we understand our country today. The Tea Party in particular looks back to an idealized version of those Founders. (Note that I’m not saying anything is wrong about something being idealized.)

We have historical documents that demonstrate the existence of those people. But how many people review those documents and use the methods of history to verify the story? In fact, the typical reaction is to hear the narrative and to be absorbed (or not) into its world.

My point here is that the power of the story is what matters in narrative theology. Questions of the scientific or historical validity of a belief are of a different kind. It is necessary to keep clear which field of enquiry we’re operating in.

I started this with a mention of Pascal’s wager. The idea there is that a person has the choice to be a Christian or not. Pascal claimed that someone choosing to be a Christian loses nothing if he is wrong in that belief, while an atheist loses everything if he is wrong. The problem here is that Islam was known to Europeans at the time Pascal made his wager. That religion makes the same exclusive claim. My answer is that the wager itself is invalid. We have many choices about the nature of our lives. Will we be good or evil? Will we find fulfillment or not? Will we succeed at a purpose or not? To say that there is only one answer to all those questions–especially since so many stories provide meaning, stories that can contradict each other–is limiting to possibility. And possibility and the stories that we tell about it is the essence of life.

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Warning: Here there be spoilers. But if you haven’t watched the re-imagined version of Battlestar Galactica, what the frak is wrong with you?

There’s a scene in the final episode of Battlestar Galactica that never fails to fill me with awe:

As a reminder, for the last many episodes and, in fact, seasons, we’ve been wondering what the real nature of Kara Thrace (Starbuck) is, what her destiny is, and what all is wrapped up into the song, “All Along the Watchtower,” that keeps playing in surprising contexts. Here, at last, is the answer–or rather, one answer, since this series is a tapestry with many meanings woven into its fabric.

The song that identifies the Final Five human-form Cylons, the song that Kara’s father played when she was a child, the song that people many years later will play when they dream of escaping from whatever unhappiness they find themselves in, and Dave Matthews will use to close his concerts is also in musical form the jump coordinates for Earth.

Now why does this matter? It is, after all, just a television show, right? It matters because storytelling is how we humans form our fundamental understanding of our world. Some never do come to appreciate a mathematical formula. The arguments of science or philosophy or politics or even logic itself are lost on too many of us. But good stories reach everyone.

Why is this? What I’m illustrating here with this example from Battlestar Galactica is that narrative weaves meaning into events that would otherwise seem unconnected. Carl Jung called this synchronicity, as I wrote about earlier. And even when our lives have much in them that is random and meaningless, a good story unites all of its elements into a comprehensive whole.

I call this interpretation narrative theology. It explains the lasting appeal of religion and literature. Both are forms of storytelling that get integrated into our souls. A small act, what Gandalf says gets called a chance encounter in our Middle Earth, a butterfly flapping its wings all may or may not be merely random and without implication, but in the world of a story, everything can tie together.

As the greeting between Adama and Starbuck often goes:

Adama: What do you hear, Starbuck?
Thrace: Nothing but the rain, sir.

Each of those drops of water flow together to a vast sea of meaning that stories create.

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