Thursday, June 23, 2011

Thinking about religious knowledge

A friend sent me a link to an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times about Harold Camping’s claim about the date of the Rapture, a claim now proven false (cf. Gary Gutting, “Epistemology and the End of the World,” June 16, 2011). For readers not versed in Christian theology, some fundamentalist Christians believe that God will take all Christians alive at some particular moment in time and transport them to heaven, an event known as the Rapture. I’ve written about Harold Camping’s claims before (cf. Ethical Musings: When democracy becomes tyranny).

Religious claims depend upon knowledge claims for which no objective evidence exists, i.e., revealed knowledge accessed through either scripture or personal experience. That said, philosophy encounters the same difficulty since pure reason (as postulated by Immanuel Kant, for example) does not exist (cognitive science offers expanding evidence that human thoughts and inextricably intertwined with emotions and experience).

So the question, in my estimation, is to determine for oneself the experiences and sources are sufficiently trustworthy as a basis for constructing one’s life. I find the lives of people who have lived good lives writ large (aka saints and moral exemplars), honored traditions including scripture, and consistency (e.g., all of the world’s major religions teaching the Golden Rule) helpful. If people gave more thought to the question of the veracity of religious claims, I suspect the world would have fewer Harold Campings and each of them would have fewer followers (also cf. Ethical Musings: Thinking about truth).

Many scriptures including the Christian Bible, the Muslim Koran, and the Hindu Bhagavad Gita claim to contain the truth. One does not have to read these works very carefully to realize that a literal reading of one conflicts with a literal reading of the others. How is a person to know which to trust?

If God exists, there is only one ultimate reality. If God is loving, then that loving ultimate reality wants a relationship with everyone, not just a narrow ideologically or geographically defined group. The points of agreement – consensus – within the various scriptures that are discovered by approaching the scriptures as windows through which God's light shines or as metaphors through which God's word is heard provide a more substantial basis for constructing the good life than does a literal reading. This is why a towering Christian saint such as Martin Luther King, Jr., found inspiration not only in the Bible but also by studying lives as varied as those of Mahatma Gandhi and Francis of Assisi.

Real differences exist in religious traditions. Some of those differences result from the inability to speak in human language of the divine. Many of the differences are cultural or historical. Yet other differences result from varied emphases: Judaism, for example, emphasizes social justice and Buddhism emphasizes the importance of the inner journey. At their best, each religious tradition contributes valuable insights. Pilgrims are well advised to choose a path but to look left and right, not just straight ahead, to learn from fellow pilgrims on different paths.

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