Posted by: dacalu | 22 July 2011

Noble Pursuit

The Tao Te Ching, usually translated as “The Classic of the Way” forms the central scripture for Taoism. It can be considered the primary authority on the subject of the Tao, the way. It begins with these words: The way that can be spoken is not the true way. Wonderful, isn’t it. The classic on the way begins by telling us that what can be explained about the way isn’t really the way, so be careful.

Today, I’d like to talk about that wonderful, infuriating, and terribly useful category of things that can be pursued, but cannot (at least currently) be caught. Living in a contentious age, we are often challenged either to know something or to admit it cannot be known, to have confidence in the answer or yield all claim to knowledge. I would say that I hear this at least twice a month from my students. “You believe in X don’t you?” Well, no, I say. “Oh, so you think not X?” No, not really. I just don’t think there’s enough data yet. I have an inkling, an inclination, but it seems to be an open question. Dualism seems to be the most popular issue at the moment. As I mentioned earlier, I believe in at least two worldviews, the world of atoms and physics and empiricism on the one hand, the world of souls and love and duty on the other. Am I a dualist, then? Do I believe in two fundamentally different substances? No. I think that it’s just one universe of experience and being. Souls are not a different substance, but they are a different way of looking at things. Oh, so I must believe that souls are reducible to atoms? No, not that either (nor for that matter do I think atoms are reducible to souls). I think, even hope that someday we will have one science that explains souls and atoms in the same terms, we just don’t have it yet. In the meantime, I have to say that both worldviews appear necessary. So there is no consilience, to use the fancy philosophical word. There is no consilience, though I hope for one and am even willing to look for one.

The same issue pops up over and over again.

Neurology and will: can our thoughts, intentions, and feelings be reduced to the firing of neurons? The simple answer is no. We cannot currently do this, no matter how enthusiastically the data we have may be presented. Neither do we have conceptual proof that this may one day be done in the future. I think that the attempt to explain our mental state in terms of physical processes is a noble pursuit. I think it’s worth doing, even though I don’t think we’ll ever have a fully satisfactory answer – first because the answers we do get are interesting, and second because you never know until you try. So I reject the claim that mind is physically determined by brain chemistry and I also defend the importance of studying how the body affects the mind.

Systematic Theology: can all our understanding of God, self, life, the universe, and everything be coherently summed up in an elegant package? Again, I think the answer is no. While not being a relativist, I’m extremely skeptical about our ability to know things, particularly the big important things like “who is God?” I doubt humans will ever have a fully formed, perfectly consistent theology. However, I also think that theology on an ad hoc basis can be counter-productive and dangerous. We cannot ignore the way that our beliefs about salvation affect the way we think about our humanity, and the way we think about Christ. (That is, if we make Salvation the core of Christianity – as many are wont to do – then we must have a very low view of human nature and a very transcendent Christ. On the other hand, if we are to value human freedom and choice, we must do so by weakening the absolute need for divine intervention.) When one aspect of our theology differs from another, we run the risk of working against ourselves. Systematic theology tries to make our different theologies agree with one another. I know that we’ll never make it all into one big theory, but I respect the need to try.

Marriage: what does marriage mean? Is it a question of ideal grace or lived love? Is it revealed or constructed, personal or social, religious or personal? The answer is yes. It is. Those are questions that by and large cannot be answered because it has been all of those things at different times to different people. Does that mean that marriage is not one thing? No. I really think there is one true grace underlying all these things – on hope we cling to and one harmony we see. The attempt to understand marriage will probably never reveal a final answer, but in the meantime it will tell us invaluable things about ourselves and our community. We must argue about it because that’s the only way we will come to know one another and ourselves. The questions are meaningful. Even the answers are meaningful, even when we know that they may not be the final answers.

I’m not a relativist. There is one true, full truth out there. It’s worth pursuing. But it’s also worth realizing that our grasp of it must be imperfect – at least in this lifetime. I talk about the Way, even though the way that can be spoken is not the true Way. I talk about God, always knowing that the truth of God is infinitely more than I can ask or imagine. I try to reconcile physics, ethics, and souls despite the fact that I know they cannot currently be reconciled, just as I try to grasp the full reality and fullest expression of my faith.

We must live with ambiguity, but that doesn’t mean we can’t explore it. Who knows; we might even stumble upon the truth.

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