Making Reality Behave, #1: Religion, Reality, and Human Invention

Making Reality Behave, #1: Religion, Reality, and Human Invention

6a00e54fc1c761883401538f271b72970b-800wiI have heard it opined that the greatest threats to religion are science and reason. In reality, I find Abdu’l-Bahá’s take on this much more compelling:

Consider what it is that singles man out from among created beings, and makes of him a creature apart. Is it not his reasoning power, his intelligence? Shall he not make use of these in his study of religion? I say unto you: weigh carefully in the balance of reason and science everything that is presented to you as religion. If it passes this test, then accept it, for it is truth! If, however, it does not so conform, then reject it, for it is ignorance! — Abdu’l-Bahá from a talk given at Rue Camoens, November 12, 1911

I believe—and indeed, in my own experience, have found—that science and reason are necessary to religion (more on that in a later post) and that the greatest threat to religion is human invention—in a word, tinkering.

Someone commented recently that history clearly shows how much of what we think of as religion is of recent vintage. That is certainly true of certain rituals, traditions and forms that exist in religious communities today, but seem to have their origins somewhere other than the sacred texts of a given faith. An example of this is how some present day kashris (Jewish food laws) were more recent adaptations of scriptural exhortations. Take the modern-day Orthodox kashrut about having dairy and meat together in the same meal (or served on the same dishes). This stems from a commandment in the Torah that a baby goat should not be cooked in the milk of its mother. Some rabbis have reinterpreted that commandment in a way that is applicable to a world in which the cooking of a kid in goat’s milk is vanishingly rare—hence, meat and dairy are not to be mixed. Others have simply accepted it as an ancient social teaching that was applicable once, but which is no longer appropriate to the state of society today.

A lack of historical clarity makes it difficult for believers in any of the faiths founded in pre-literate times to distinguish between the revealed teachings of the Prophet and what we might think of as “tradition”. This might include the tradition that Buddha was born from a slit in his mother’s side, or the conviction that belief in Jesus’ blood sacrifice and resurrection was what led to salvation, not—as He says—hearing and keeping His Words. Where, the believer might ask, does scripture end and human interpretation begin? As a youth, I wondered, for example, why the epistles of Paul were granted the same authority as the collected words of Christ.

Back to the idea of human tinkering. There is a difference between the received wisdom of the Prophet (which is what I mean when I use the word “religion”) and the later human accretions and edits to His teachings (which is, possibly, what most people think of as “religion”).

creationA commenter here noted that a God that is different at different times must be fictional. I think to a great extent that is true. Bahá’u’lláh says that God is not comprehensible to human beings—that any images or conceptions we have about Him (including gender) are fictions born of our own flawed imaginations. Unable to comprehend the reality, we fashion an understanding of God that is pieced together by our own perceptions, reason, hopes, fears and prejudices.

I’ve found the Hindu scriptures to be eloquent about the difference between the reality of God and the sort of god outfits we try on Him.

Who verily knows and who can here declare it, whence it was born and whence comes this creation? The gods are later than this world’s production. Who knows then whence it came first into being? He, the first origin of this creation, whether he formed it or did not form it, Whose eye controls this world in highest heaven, he verily knows it. — Rig-Veda, Hymn CXXIX, Creation

Those who love the gods go to the gods; but those who love me come to me. The unwise think I am that form of my lower nature which is seen by mortal eyes; they know not my higher nature, imperishable and supreme. — Krishna, Bhagavad Gita 7:23-24

I see in thee all the gods, O my God: and the infinity of the beings of thy creation. — Arjuna, Bhagavad Gita 11:15

I came from a Christian background and understood “scripture” to refer only to the Bible. Bahá’u’lláh’s statements about the reality of the Prophets challenged me to look past the human tradition I had been taught, to the scriptural record of other faiths besides my own. I saw that the God revealed there was not different at different times. If it seemed so, it was because we human beings were different at different times.

Books-with-Letters-above-it-300x199The Buddhist scriptures have a marvelously concise statement of this principle attributed Gautama Buddha:

And as all things originate from one Essence, so they are developing according to one law, and they are destined to one aim which is Nirvana. Nirvana comes to thee when thou understandest thoroughly and livest according to that understanding, that all things are of one Essence and that there is but one law. Hence, there is but one Nirvana as there is but one truth, not two or three. And the Tathagata is the same to all beings, differing in attitude only so far as all beings are different. The Tathagata, however, knows the law whose essence is salvation, and whose end is the peace of Nirvana. He is the same to all, and yet knowing the requirements of every single being, He does not reveal Himself to all alike. — Dhammapada

This idea—that the great Teachers educate us according to our capacity, is a cornerstone of the teachings of Christ, Muhammad, and Bahá’u’lláh, etc., as well. That contributes greatly to our perception that we worship different gods or that God is capricious or that He is fictional.

I’ve heard repeated arguments that Buddha or Christ or even Muhammad were not real people, but simply invented by some nebulous, but apparently powerful group for their own purposes. It seems less than reasonable to assume that, given the sheer amount of evidence to the contrary, and I think Occam’s Razor would slice on the side of there having been a personage at the core of the legend who taught things that people thought worthy of remembering, repeating, and eventually writing down. Certainly, humans edited the message to suit temporal purposes, but the essentials can easily be seen despite the tinkering of human hands.

Torah ScrollWe are, of course, hampered in the study of pre-literacy Prophets; the record is fragmentary and subject to the vagaries of human understanding. We also have a fragmentary fossil record supporting the theory of evolution, but it is enough of a record that, taken with other evidence, we can be reasonably certain that evolution is the mechanism by which life progressed on this planet. I submit that there is similar “fossil evidence” for the evolution of religion. The teachings attributed to Buddha or Krishna or Christ are fairly well agreed-upon at this stage and they are, in a sense, a spiritual “fossil record”. In this record, we read about God in the consistency of the prescriptive messages of the Prophets; we read about ourselves in the changing social teachings those Prophets brought and the edits we made.

As we advanced forward in time, as we became literate, this record became ever more solid. The surihs of the Qur’an were written down as a body of work far closer to the revelation of Muhammad than the Gospels were in relation to the ministry of Christ or than the contents of the Tripitaka were collected after the passing of Gautama Buddha. The Gospels were recorded in a piecemeal fashion until Luke—a journalistic pioneer of sorts—rather intentionally went out seeking stories about Christ. The disciples of the Buddha painstakingly gathered their three baskets of written teachings (hence, Tripitaka), until they had a body of work to collate and copy for posterity.

A 2000 year-old revelation is hard to chart, of course, but there is the 1000 year-old Muslim revelation, and—much closer to hand, still—the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh, who both wrote a record of Their teachings as well as having contemporary chroniclers—friendly, hostile, and neutral—marking Their progress and offering commentary.

Bahá’u’lláh, in His copious writings, affirmed that the pattern of revelation we see in the scriptural record—if we take the time to look—is really there. I personally believe that if we want to have some idea of what the Buddha or Christ or any other Divine Teacher experienced, a study of the lives of the Báb and Bahá’u’lláh can be most enlightening. Here, we have an opportunity to see what many atheist thinkers, such as the late Christopher Hitchens, believed humanity would never witness again.

In God is Not Great, Hitchens wrote: “Religion spoke its last intelligible or noble or inspiring words a long time ago… We shall have no more prophets which is why the devotions of today are only the echoing repetitions of yesterday.”

When I first read that passage, it rendered me speechless (as hard as that is to believe). Mr. Hitchens’ words are both falsifiable and false, though I’m sure he believed them and felt them to be reasonable. And therein lies the whole problem that being human presents—ultimately, we are limited by our own capacity to know and to understand what we know.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAA science magazine that I read long ago contained an illustration of man’s knowledge about the universe. It was a large circle with a tiny dot somewhere near the perimeter. Two arrows completed the drawing—one pointing to the dot, the other to the outer border of the circle. “This,” said the caption on the dot, “is what we know about the universe.”

The caption on the circle? “This is what we don’t know about the universe.”

This is why we have science. It is also why we have religion—because there is another huge circle inside that tiny dot that we are equally ignorant of. It is a final frontier that cannot be seen with material eyes, but that all of us know exists nonetheless.

Next time: The scientific method and useful fictions..

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5 thoughts on “Making Reality Behave, #1: Religion, Reality, and Human Invention

  1. Sure there is still a huge amount we don’t know about science. But we know enough to know that there is a lot of scientific errors in the Qur’an and in the Bible. Those ancient authors knew far less about science than we do today. So then many of the scientific pronouncements attributed to such alleged manifestations of God as Moses, Jesus and Muhammad cannot be inerrant scripture.

    1. Clearly, the authors of the Torah and Gospels were writing in terms that they understood about a pre-scientific world. The words science and scientists weren’t even coined until the 19th century. But here’s the thing: while some fundamentalist Christians, for example, insist on taking the Bible as a scientific document, most Christians I know don’t, and certainly no Bahá’ís do.

      The Old Testament writers were trying to chronicle their history as they understood it. And the book of Genesis is a very good symbolic history (which is what the Jews thought of it as). There really isn’t any science in it, as such, at all. There are creation stories. There is also, in the psalms of David, a lovely verse that I’ve always taken as an invitation to do science:

      The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. — Psalm 19

      The Gospel writers were concerned with publishing the message of Christ, which, again, wasn’t about science. Although Christ does give several very neat lessons on logic and inference in the course of His talks.

      And you’re right, of course, the Bible is far from inerrant. What I find most interesting about modern claims that it is, is that not one of the books of the Bible claims inerrancy.

      1. The English word science is quite old, from the 14th century. Though at that time it probably meant mainly knowledge, coming from the Latin word scientia, which meant mainly knowledge, from the verb scire, meaning ‘to know’. So the word ‘knowledge’ that you quoted from Psalm 19, was probably scientia in Latin, when the Psalm was translated to Latin. When did the word science acquire the main modern meaning, I don’t really know. Though I doubt it was as late as the 19th century. But the exact century is not important. Some ancient Romans practiced science already in the first century, whether or not they called it scientia.
        Anyway, the ancient Israelites did believe in knowledge, even if they hardly practiced any science. You seem to believe in the inerrancy of the words of Jesus, as recorded in the gospels. So for example he declared knowledge that the mustard seed is the smallest seed of all. But he did not know that some orchid seeds are even smaller. Or he declared his knowledge that if a seed stays alive, it will not sprout, but if it dies, it sprouts. But the true knowledge is just the opposite. He was ignorant of that fact.
        But anyway, in Mark 12:26 Jesus declared that the story of the burning bush is from the Book of Moses. So apparently he believed that Moses wrote it, and so apparently he wrote all of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and at least most of Deuteronomy, which is all probably in Moses’s Book. Yet in Leviticus, this same Moses, whom you consider a Manifestation of God, therefore inerrant, he wrote for example that insects have four legs. Or also he wrote that rabbits and hyraxes (coneys in KJV Bible) chew cud, another error. Also he wrote that hyraxes don’t have split hooves, though they do have tiny split hooves. So another error. And in Exodus 13, Moses wrote of the land of the Philistines, though Philistines did not live in that land yet, when the exodus supposedly happened. So that was another error of knowledge, this time indicating that Jesus was wrong, it is not from Moses. Whether Jesus also believed that Moses wrote also Genesis, that we can’t know. Anyway, 2 Tim. 3:16 claims that all scripture is inspired by God and useful for teaching, refutation and correction. So presumably also Genesis, with all its errors of knowledge, is useful for teaching, refutation and correction. So it is useful for example for refutation of evolution, and teaching of creationism.
        And the Qur’an is supposed to be all from Muhammad, whom you consider another Manifestation of God. So wouldn’t the Qur’an be inerrant? Yet it has creation of for example cattle, instead of cattle evolving from other animals. It has a worldwide flood of Noah, even though no such flood ever happened. It has errors of embryology, and other knowledge errors. How do you explain that?

        1. Tom, the word has existed in one form or another for a very long time, but was only applied to the process and discipline we now call science around the 18th century (or 19th depending on which authority you cite). But yes, it’s sort of a cool find to think of the word knowledge from Psalms as being possibly translated into Latin as scientia, though it might also be sophia. A latin bible would probably settle that.

          Frankly, when it comes to Christ’s words about mustard seeds (or whatever was translated as mustard seeds) I think you’re nit-picking, The point that Christ is making is that the tiniest of seeds can grow into a tremendously strong and durable plant and He is using the vernacular and knowledge of the people He’s teaching to make the point. If orchids aren’t known to the audience, what sense does it make to cite them? The utterances of the Manifestation are limited by the knowledge of the audience and in this case, Jesus’ purpose is not to teach science but to teach spiritual concepts. No metaphor is perfect. Even scientists today talk about string theory when they know the actual object they’re discussing is unlike string in more ways than it is like string. But, like Jesus, they are counting on the audience having enough experience with a particular subject to get the point.

          And the point is about a spiritual reality, not a physical one. Take the idea that the seed dies in order for the grain to appear (an idea Paul uses in Corinthians when trying to explain resurrection or rebirth). The form of the seed does die. It sacrifices the seed form to the sprout form and ultimately appears as fully grown wheat (or whatever). Paul’s spiritual point is that the final form is nothing at all like the original form. That form has ceased to exist. Is it scientifically accurate to say the seed “dies”? No, but it is spiritually accurate.

          Again, I would never argue that the Bible or Qur’an or Bhagavad Gita or any other ancient scripture is inerrant. In the case of the older faiths the stories have been passed down orally for centuries before being committed to writing. While I can trust that what Christ taught is true, I cannot trust that all of His chroniclers were 100% accurate in recording it. The Church was faced with this reality when it tried to determine which books should be considered canon and which not. Much of the Torah is made up of pieced together stories in some cases by a variety of different authors. The Book of Job, for example, appears to some scholars to be made up of two or three separate manuscripts with different moral messages that were pieced together.

          This is why Manifestations of God continue to come, and why the way in which they communicate changes as our capacity (and our technology) changes. In this age, the Manifestation has written a great deal in His own hand or dictated to a scribe, edited the finished tablet and sealed it. We still have the original tablets. So, if there is a question about intent, we can send a team of scholars into the archives to find answers. In fact, this process is ongoing.

          Why would a scripture have to be inerrant in order to be useful for teaching? Genesis—which, if you ask a rabbinical scholar is a symbolic history of the Jewish people, not a scientific step-by-step description of the creation of the universe—can be both useful and enlightening. The opening passage of Genesis is: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light.” An agnostic acquaintance who had always taken Genesis literally, read this passage after a discussion about how the scriptures of many faiths use the word “light” to refer to knowledge. He had a sudden epiphany: what if the text had God saying—on one level—”let there be enlightenment or knowledge”? It changed the way he looked at scripture altogether. It reminded me of Bahá’u’lláh’s statement that “The beginning of all things is the knowledge of God.”

          But even if we look at Genesis as a thumbnail sketch of creation, written for people who don’t even understand the relationship between sun and earth or that there are other planets and stars, it does a reasonably good job of condensing billions of years of creationary evolution into a limited vocabulary. All that in four sentences. Are we in error when we take these words as being exactly and scientifically true? You bet, because they are intended to answer a question about cause, not delve into the mechanics of creation. Discovering the mechanics is our job. That’s what God gave us our rational faculties for.

          My most recent “wow, cool” takeaway from Genesis came from the passage in which God tells Adam he gets to name all the other creatures. I’d read that passage time after time and not really thought about it. This time it stopped me. We are the animal that must know, that must understand, that must name things. We are the animal that God has created to name things. No other creature possesses that capacity. The Rosetta Stone in this case was this verse by Bahá’u’lláh: “How resplendent the luminaries of knowledge that shine in an atom, and how vast the oceans of wisdom that surge within a drop! To a supreme degree is this true of man, who, among all created things, hath been invested with the robe of such gifts, and hath been singled out for the glory of such distinction. For in him are potentially revealed all the attributes and names of God to a degree that no other created being hath excelled or surpassed.”

          While this is true, it is also true that our understanding is evolving and that when God sends us a Messenger, that Messenger is gravely hampered by what the rank and file members of His audience are capable of understanding. They are also hampered by the restrictions of language. There is a famous passage of Zoroastrian scripture in which Zoroaster is trying to give some indication of the state of the world to which the prophesied Shah Bahram (Glorious Lord) will come. He says something to the effect that in that day, a man will be able to bring light by touching a wall.

          You might argue that He should have just coined a word for electricity and tried to explain about light switches, but what would have been the point? And what word might He have coined that would mean anything now? When Abdu’l-Bahá discussed the energy or substance that binds the disparate parts of the universe together, he used the existing vernacular to do so and called it aether. During the period in which aether fell into disuse and disrepute, people argued that Abdu’l-Bahá didn’t know what he was talking about and though scientists have now realized that the concept of connectivity was correct, they have given it different names: quintessence, dark matter, dark energy and the like. So, what if Abdu’l-Bahá had used the words dark matter instead of aether? Or what if he’d used whatever word we’re going to be using 100 years from now? I suspect we’d end up arguing about the words he used, rather than bending our understanding to what he was trying to convey—that everything in the universe is connected in some way that it is up to us to discover.

          When Abdu’l-Bahá gave his talks in the US and Europe, he often stood before Christian and Jewish audiences. He occasionally used examples from the Bible (such as Adam and Eve) to make a point about a spiritual concept and when he did, he used language that often seemed to honor the belief of his audience about Adam and Eve. I understand why he did this, despite the fact that he speaks of the symbolic nature of the couple in other treatises. When trying to get across a spiritual concept to a particular audience—such as the oneness of humanity, say—an argument about whether Adam and Eve were literally the first created human beings is counterproductive. The story of Adam and Eve allowed Abdu’l-Bahá to make a point about human unity in a way that his audience could comprehend.

          This is the way good teachers teach. They challenge their students with ideas, not with the language they use. If asked, a first grade teacher will tell her class that zero is the smallest number; she will not defeat the purpose of her lesson by trying to explain negative numbers or (God forbid) imaginary numbers to a group incapable of grasping them. For one thing, knowledge of one depends on knowledge of the other. Likewise, what the Manifestations tell us is in accordance with our ability to comprehend and apply what they tell us and it is limited (severely, in some cases) by the words available in current day language.

          1. Maya, thanks for acknowledging that some scriptures from who you consider manifestations of God, are not inerrant. You are certainly right that we can’t trust that the four chroniclers of Jesus’s life in the Bible, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, were 100% accurate in recording Jesus’s words. We can see it for example in the contradiction about divorce, Mark and Luke quote Jesus as not allowing divorce for any reason, Matthew has this exception for fornication, about which churches have disputes about what it means. But anyway, nonfundamentalist biblical scholars are not even sure if the 4 gospels were actually written by men named Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, much less if Matthew and John were the apostles of that name. Ancient Christian writers claimed that Matthew wrote his gospel in Hebrew. If he did, the text in Hebrew has not survived, and the Greek Matthew that we have would then be only a translation. And in any case, Jesus was not preaching in Greek anyway, probably mainly in Aramaic, so what we do have is all translation anyway, and not his exact words, and translations are not always successful in translating sentences perfectly. A word can have more than one meaning, and then the translation has to try to choose the best equivalent word in the target language, and the chosen word in turn can have more than one meaning. So it might not be quite what Jesus was trying to say. And anyway, we have various ancient Greek manuscripts of the gospels, which sometimes differ in their wording, even when quoting Jesus. So scholars have the sometimes difficult task of trying to reconstruct the original Greek text from the various manuscripts, copied by imperfect copyists.
            Likewise I am glad you don’t believe in the inerrancy of the Qur’an. Now we have only one standard text in Arabic, but tradition says that when some Caliph wanted to standardize the Qur’an, he was faced with different manuscripts which sometimes differed in wording, so he chose one text and burned the others, so that is why nowadays the Arabic text does not vary from Qur’an to Qur’an. So we can’t be perfectly sure of the exact words of Muhammad in the Qur’an. Not as sure as we can be with Bahaullah, where we still have the original texts, or as you call them, tablets.
            Anyway, concerning the mustard seed, Jesus could have easily said it is almost the smallest seed. But he did not say ‘almost’. Or if he did, the word has not survived into the text we have in the gospels.
            Thanks for the interesting fact from the Zoroastrian scripture about touching the wall. Fascinating.
            You got me curious about the wording in the Latin Bible of Psalm 19. Thankfully, several web sites have the Latin Vulgate text online. So I was able to find it, and understand it, thanks to having studied a little Latin in college. The word is not sophia. That Latin word is from Greek and it means wisdom. The word is indeed, as I guessed, scientia. If you want to look it up, in the Vulgate Bible it is psalm 18. The Latin text says ‘et nox nocti indicat scientiam’, which means literally ‘and night to night shows knowledge’. The word scientiam is the accusative case of scientia, the accusative ending needs to be used because the word ‘knowledge’ is the direct object of the verb. Similarly nox is the nominative case of the word for ‘night’, and nocti is the dative case of ‘night’, meaning ‘to night’. English has the word nocturnal from the Latin word for ‘night’. And anyway, the English word night is not from Latin, but it is cognate to the Latin word for ‘night’, both ultimately deriving from some Proto-Indo-European word for ‘night’, since both languages are Indo-European languages, so they still share a few words of common origin. The Proto-Indo-European language was of course not written, so we linguists have created only an imperfect reconstruction of it from the various known Indo-European languages. But it was spoken a long time ago, we estimate some 3000 or 4000 years before the birth of Jesus, so earlier than the time when according to Genesis God supposedly confused the languages after destroying the tower of Babel. Likewise Proto-Semitic is earlier, Proto-Afro-Asiatic is even much earlier. In fact, based on the most usual timing of Egyptian chronology, the most ancient Egyptian texts and Sumerian texts are from about 3000 BCE, therefore predating the mythical tower of Babel by about 8 centuries. Of course fundamentalist Christians much prefer an alternate dating of Egyptian chronology, that would date the earliest Egyptian and Sumerian texts shortly after the tower of Babel, since they argue that there was only one language when the tower was built, as the Bible says. Some think that one language was Hebrew, since some people before the tower and before the flood had clear Hebrew names. But Hebrew is a descendant of Proto-Semitic, which in turn, just like ancient Egyptian, was apparently descended from Proto-Afro-Asiatic. So men like Adam, Enoch, Noah, Shem etc., if they existed, could not have spoken Hebrew, that language did not exist yet. But I don’t believe they were actual historical people anyway.

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