WALKING HUMBLY AND LISTENING

WALKING HUMBLY AND LISTENING

In an interesting piece, recently called to my attention by a friend, Rabbi Rami Shapiro wrote that all religion is “made up”.

“Religion is made up; all religion, not just other people’s religions. Religion is made up. God didn’t choose the Jews, have a baby, or ask Mohammed to recite. Religion is made up, but Reality is not. Yet religion trumps Reality in the hearts and minds of millions, maybe billions of people.

“Religion is made up, but Truth is not. Yet religion blasphemes Truth with self-serving tales of power and exploitation.”

And the rabbi went on in this vein, finishing with:

“If we admit that religion is made up we can shake off the fear and violence it sanctions and address its one timeless message: do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.”

His full piece is copied below.

I too believe that the message is timeless, but if it’s a message… Who sent it….?

My friend, a physicist in “spiritual search mode”, asked me for my comments. That prompted a good deal of reflection. Those of us who are embedded in a community spiritual life somewhere (read religion) are all too painfully aware that religious institutions can get in the way of spiritually mediated insight and moral wisdom.

But “made up”? My first line in reply was —

Ah, but is mathematics “made up”?

Actually this is not a trivial issue, as my handful of theology readers already know. The dominant intellectual fad of the modern ‘enlightened’ culture – now thankfully fading – is full-on materialism, in the philosophical sense. This is the notion that all that is real (and they really mean all) is fully accounted for by the physical realm of matter, energy in the space-time continuum.

The comprehensive materialist notion is completely antithetical to Plato’s vision of reality. Plato, Pythagoras and other ancient thinkers adopted a view closer to the polar opposite, holding, in effect, that “true” reality consists of essentially perfect, eternal form, discoverable by the mind, but only shabbily and transiently represented in the messy realm we people temporarily inhabit. In its extreme form, this anti-materialist idea led – by extension – to all kinds of unreasonable spin-off notions, particularly to the silly notion that sex is impure and that humanity is inherently corrupt (well that’s not so silly, but you get the notion how obnoxious this kind of thing can seem in its extreme forms), and so on…

I find the extreme version of materialism (I’m calling this mindset ‘arch-materialism’) at least equally pernicious, leading to the ridiculous notion that even the core logical findings of mathematics are “made up” as opposed to discovered. This path can and often does lead us to the truly malign point of view that human morality is “made up”. This leads inevitably to cultural and moral relativism. And one arrives eventually at the impasse: moral paralysis in the face of evil (because evil can’t exist except as a cultural construct) and so on… you get the idea.

Here’s the deal: Our culture’s “new” paradigm, rapidly emerging in parts of the intelligentsia, is that all reality is deeply integrated. This is not really a novel idea, after all, because the conviction that reality makes sense to reason, which is the core faith of the entire scientific enterprise, is based on the a priori assumption of deep reality integration. Isaac Newton did science, driven by the conviction that god made nature intelligible to the mind of man.

I am strongly persuaded that the so called Platonic realm of form and order, (re-understood in the 21st century as capable of containing much more complex and dynamic forms – think of the evolution modeling algorithms or the ‘design’ features of living organisms, as examples) and the physical-material realm we live in … are BOTH real.

What a radical notion.

Moreover, it seems intuitively obvious to me that these two realms are in active relationship with each other, a sort of mutual interpenetration, if you will.

Moreover, it seems equally obvious that the mind has a special place in this integrated picture of reality. Here, I’m using ‘mind’ as the more inclusive term than mere ‘brain’. I believe that the latter is better understood as a communication instrumentality in the same sense that a radio receiver or iPod are communication instrumentalities for the songs or symphonies they carry. This is a sort of non-local neo-Copernican world view in which the “value universe” if you will, revolves around mind – a distributed property of the developing universe.

The plain inadequacy of using arch-materialism in an attempted explanatory reductionism of “life, the universe and everything” is its Achilles heel. Some things can’t be reduced.[1]

The conscious mind is the stage (or the venue) on (or in) which the two realms are in their most intensely active relationship with each other.

Mathematics is a discovered property of reality shared by the material and non material realms. So it is hardly coincidental that mathematics is such a brilliantly successful tool in describing the physical world.

But so are esthetics and ethics and it is no accident that our esthetic and ethical sensibilities are very closely related faculties. That it to say – meaning and purpose are also discovered properties of the universe, of ‘all reality’. They are manifested in us because we are the universe some awake. Our meaning-encounters are discoveries rather than inventions.

The information age (in the form of reality modeling computer algorithms, reality simulating computer games, and reality manipulating “intelligent” systems) has taught us something new about the world. Cogently and persuasively, the information age has demonstrated to millions of people that information – really a non-material, even Platonic kind or aspect of reality – is both intangible and real, both ethereal and powerful.

I am simply proposing here that information (in its broadest sense) is real in a very comprehensive sense: Information has a dual ontology, operating/existing both in the “Platonic” realm and in the physical mechanical realm.

This how I arrived at my understanding (metaphorically expressed, of course) that “mind” is an “amphibious” creature of both information and active physical medium. Our minds exist partly submerged in the pond of “mere” physicality and partly emerged in the sky of “pure” eternality. We thinking, feeling beings are the interface between these two realms.

All this is preamble to my reply to the friend who sent me the Rabbi’s piece. Here’s the rest of what I said (with footnotes added).


I am personally of the view that all religion, doctrine, ritual and liturgy, are software. When a particular software suite works for us, it successfully facilitates our deepest connections – – to other morally aware humans across sspace and time, and to the numinous[2]. Not all religious software can run on any particular platform. But there is a larger common reality, imperfectly understood, to which a connection is being made.

I have arrived at my personal take via introspection and reflection (starting from a sort of Spinoza-deist[3] intimation of the wholeness of all things, an intellectual and interior journey aided by heuristic[4] faith). Over time, I have become gradually persuaded that the numinous is discovered rather than invented. And I have come to understand that the numinous is our experience of an aspect of reality that transcends but includes “nature” (as the space time continuum and all the ‘laws” that operate in it and on it).

We might be said to “invent” our numinous connection modalities, only, but not the level or domain of reality to which our experience of it points.

So in my own world-view, the numinous is a discovered transcendent realm of reality. In the human experience of the numinous, some of us find “Being” at the very center, others find a “Supreme Being” or “Ur-Being” or “Original Being’ or “Ultimate Archetype of Being” or “Ground of Being” or just “Beingness.”

The mystical tradition favors not naming this “being” on the reasonable grounds that any name imposes implicit, inappropriate limits. The theology tradition favors at least provisionally naming this Being on the equally reasonable grounds that we benefit from discussion and dialogue, and because naming our subject is usually helpful to that conversation.

I regret – and oppose – the tendency of many religious institutions to monopolize our access to the numinous, in effect to appropriate our personal access to G-d (by whatever name) or to filter and “manage” that access, or – worse still – to appropriate Deity (i.e., someone’s idea of deity) in the cause of political repression. It is an all too common power temptation subject to all of the potential abuses of worldly power – whether cloaked as appropriated divine authority or not.

Perhaps Rabbi Shapiro tipped his hand in the following passage.

At its best [religion’s] stories have the potential to capture our imagination and feed our souls by revealing the best to which we humans can aspire. At its worst [they] can strip us of our humanity and invite us to make real the darkest fantasies we can conjure. Torah, Gospels, Qur’an, and Gita contain insights of such power, grandeur and wisdom that we say they come from God.

“We can say”? Or we can detect? I confess I am a latter day Platonist in that I believe there are essential universals resident outside (or along side) physical/material reality that are subject to discovery.

Now I grant that the Rabbi has also stated (consistent with Spinoza’s pantheism) that “all is God”. But the author of the quoted segment seems to be saying that “it’s all made up” while still employing the notion of a more universal normative yardstick (source not directly acknowledged) by which we can make judgments about “best” and “darkest”, “power and wisdom”.

I would suggest that the source of all normative evaluations – at least for someone who is able to beliieve in a full integration of the numinous and mundane – can be recognized as that Being resident at the center of the numinous level of reality. In this sense, we can visualize Moral Being (by whatever name) as in communication with all receptive morally aware minds. Our task becomes one of discernment / discovery / decoding of the communicated/discovered universals, a task aided by ongoing dialogue with other intelligent morally aware persons.

We need the humility of a bad translator and the moral confidence to take risks when appropriate. A good approximation of the normative “Truth’ arrived at with confidence tempered by caution, beats normative paralysis.

Two other observations in passing:

The empirical model still works outside the domain of physical experiment, but it is a lot more stochastic and intuitive in the esthetic, ethical and spiritual domains. 
Scripture, read carefully but allegorically, consists of a huge body of lab notes.

And so it goes….

[][][]

Religion Is Made Up
By Rabbi Rami Shapiro

Religion is made up; all religion, not just other people’s religions.

Religion is made up. God didn’t choose the Jews, have a baby, or ask
Mohammed to recite.

Religion is made up, but Reality is not. Yet religion trumps Reality in the
hearts and minds of millions, maybe billions of people.

Religion is made up, but Truth is not. Yet religion blasphemes Truth with
self-serving tales of power and exploitation.

Religion is made up. Once you know this it is hard to be religious. You just
can’t justify all the rules and ruckus. I know because I keep trying. I keep
telling myself religion matters. But it doesn’t.

You know what matters? Love matters. Compassion matters. Justice matters.
Peace matters. Humility matters. Nature matters. Truth matters. Reality
matters. You matter.

So what do I do when I know religion is made up? First I remember that all
philosophy and literature is made up as well. Second I remember that just
because Plato invented the dialogues of Socrates, and Shakespeare invented
Hamlet and Lear doesn’t mean that Socrates, Hamlet, and Lear don’t speak
Truth. Fiction may preclude fact, but in no way does it obscure Truth.

Religion is made up. At its best its stories have the potential to capture
our imagination and feed our souls by revealing the best to which we humans
can aspire. At its worst it can strip us of our humanity and invite us to
make real the darkest fantasies we can conjure. Torah, Gospels, Qur’an, and
Gita contain insights of such power, grandeur and wisdom that we say them
come from God. They also contain the obscenely violent, misogynist, and
xenophobic rants of fearful frightened men climbing to power over the dead
bodies of their enemies.

We can’t free religion of either genius or madness, but we can free
ourselves from mistaking them both for the Word of God. How? By realizing
that religion is made up. No one goes to war over the meaning of Hamlet. No
one kills another to decide whom Shakespeare loved best.

If we admit that religion is made up we can enjoy it without being abused by
it. If we admit that religion is made up we can honor myth without having to
flatten it into fact. If we admit that religion is made up we can shake off
the fear and violence it sanctions and address its one timeless message: do
justly, love mercy, and walk humbly.

[][][]

[1] Glory (as such and as a stand in for wonder, awe, esthetic and ethical enlightenment) can be poetically compressed, but it cannot be physically reduced similarly, Schrödinger’s cat might be dissected and reduced in a heated crucible to its constituent elements, but not without losing the beloved little creature herself.

[2] Numinous is a quasi-religious term that describes the human contact with or experience of the ineffable, the “mountaintop experience”, of that sense of awe and wonder of something “other’, inherently recognized as having a powerful spiritual dimension. Carl Sagan, a nominal atheist, described this experience in poetic secular language in a famous passage from his book “Pale Blue Dot”– referring to the awe, wonder and more one can experience when seeing earth from space. Others – the Medieval mystic and theologian, Meister Eckhart and Siddharta Gautama who became the Buddha – have related the same experience in unambiguously spiritual terms. For reasons that should be clear from reading my own take, I cannot dismiss these experiences and “mere psychological states”, but instead accept them as insights (really aspects of the same insight) into reality itself.

[3] Deism – essentially the world view of Thomas Jefferson and Albert Einstein – acknowledges a creative intelligence as the architect of the natural world and the laws that govern its operation, but sees this deity as either impersonal and/or not directly involved in how creation thereafter unfolds.

[4] Heuristic is my favorite word these days. A Greek borrowing, its modern usage describes systems – particularly algorithms – capable of learning from experience.

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