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Loosey-goosey religion and its logic

Here’s a useful summary of one basic issue involved in current religious disputes over sex and whatnot: The Ecstatic Heresy. Basically, the question is whether God is personal and can do concrete things, or an indescribable ultimate principle that can’t tell us anything definite. The former view is better for ordinary believers, because it means religion can tell them something definite, while the latter is better for religious professionals, at least from a strictly occupational standpoint. Making God completely indefinite makes it hard to argue about what He wants, so it facilitates smooth administration. It makes the professionals themselves the highest possible authorities in religious matters. There’s no way to appeal over their heads to a God who has never said anything. The view of God as essentially unknowable also facilitates social advancement, because it’s easy to enlist an utterly indefinite God in the service of whatever cause is currently esteemed.

A limitation of the piece is that it takes a Protestant view that tends to oppose the authority of reason to the authority of scripture. Catholics tend to put less emphasis on the bare word of scripture and more on reason as well as tradition. Grace completes and does not replace or abolish nature. For example, Catholic morality, including Catholic sexual morality, is thought to be a matter of natural law and is thus based on reason and not simply on inscrutable biblical commands. I agree with that view, by the way. One of the reasons I became Catholic is that it seemed odd and in need of a good explanation that an aged celibate should be the only person whose public pronouncements on sex reflected much knowledge of the subject. It was one of the things that made me think they were on to something.

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Is this analogous to constitutional law, with lawyers and judges being the theologians? On one view, the text of the document really means something substantive, about which we can argue. On the other, the Constitution become a grand but indeterminate symbol for the latest progressive understanding of justice, e.g., maximal personal freedom and equality.

WW

In both cases, academic and other functionaries like to take the view that texts and other inherited materials don’t mean anything definite. That view in effect gives them ultimate authority and disables criticism of whatever they decide is a good idea.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

I do not think that the argument concerning God’s “knowability” applies to constitutional interpretation. The Constitution is not a revelatory document and was not divinely inspired. Semantic nominalism has never been part of American jurisprudence, although it has enjoyed some popularity among certain legal scholars, i.e. Critical Legal Studies.

Judicial activism and social engineering did not begin with the advent of postmodern philosophies of language which regard meaning as hopelessly indeterminate. The use of the Constitution as a tool for the creation of an autocratic judiciary arguably began with Marbury v. Madison, or possibly Dred Scott—where the Supreme Court took it upon itself to resolve the debate over slavery thus thwarting the likelihood of a political solution.

Judicial activism, therefore, is not simply due to the interpretative methodologies that courts apply when fashioning legal responses to shifting historical circumstances. The problem is fundamentally cultural and political. As long as Americans remain passive in the face of activist judges who are out to de-Christianize the public square, restrict our freedoms, and impose a leftist ideological agenda, the language of the Constitution will continue to be enlisted in the march toward a socialist dystopia.

MS writes The Constitution is not a revelatory document and was not divinely inspired- but considers mormons as by example senator Orrin Hatch believes it ( see book and movie God`smakers in www.saintsalive.com)-. Semantic nominalism has never been part of American jurisprudence,I have read in a book by R.C. Sproul Oliver Wendell Holmes introduced this concept in american corpus juridicus.

I’m over my head here and haven’t read the article you linked to, but …

Does it automatically follow that a god who’s thought to be an “indescribable ultimate principle that can’t tell us anything definite” is “essentially unknowable”? Doesn’t that exclude the possibility of personal experience of such a god?

It seems to me that if you have the personal experience and it’s really personal experience of something you can sensibly call God it will tell you something big that makes a big difference in how you live or think you ought to live. That means it’ll tell you something definite, at least in some of its important implications. What it tells you will probably be reasonably consistent with what it’s told other people. It won’t be something people can use to prove anything whatever. If it is then something’s gone wrong.

By itself mystical language can lend itself to abuse, I think. It needs to be somehow tied to more concrete things — particular doctrines, disciplines, traditions or whatnot. Vitaly Rubin, who was a dissident Soviet scholar, touches on the issue in his book Individual and State in Ancient China. He points out that the Legalist philosophers (basically, fascists who provided the theoretical basis for the unification of China under the First Emperor) found it easy to use Taoist concepts in the interests of limitless state tyranny. It’s not all bad, if you’re the absolute tyrant, for the people to be told that their language and understandings are all totally unfounded and critical thought is useless.

Naturally there are also dangers to more concrete language about transcendental things. Life is full of dangers.

(I mostly used the article as a springboard, so it’s not a must-read for commenting on the entry. And on this stuff we’re all out of our depth.)

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Thanks for the thoughtful reply. I wonder about the “telling you something definite” thing, though.

If you were to visit the Alps, or have a great friendship, or be transported by a great evening at the theater—would any of those experiences really tell you anything definite? They’re all great experiences, and they’d almost all enlighten you, and open you up to new dimensions, much as experiences of the Divine are said to do. But in any definite, pin-it-down-able kind of way? I’m not as sure of this as you seem to be.

My own hunch is that we have such an experience (if lucky); it means something to you; you try (or don’t try) to translate this into something comprehensible, all the while feeling inadequate to the task; you shyly compare notes with others (literature, philosophy, people you trust) … And maybe eventually out of all these experiences, reflections, distillations, and speculations emerges a loose set of bullet points that somehow account for or describe the experience of the Divine and what it might mean. It’d seem natural that among these bullet points are some guidelines and tips, maybe even rules, and that over time some of these should grow firmer than others.

But as for the Divine telling you with any exactness about much of anything … Does that necessarily follow?

You seem to be describing the initial stages of the development of a tradition. People have been concerned with these things for thousands of years though. Why not suppose that things have gotten beyond that?

Certainly there are different sorts of experiences. If you say an experience is of God though that seems to imply you’ve had an experience of what’s ultimately real that’s definite enough for you to identify and say something about. Otherwise it’s more like an experience of something-or-other that seems enormously important and even personally transforming, but in a way you can’t really get a grip on. It could be an experience of God, or some aspect of God, but I’m not sure what the grounds would be for saying so if it’s utterly indeterminate. Or so it seems to me.

Maybe all I’m saying is that the word “God” implies both concreteness and a comprehensive ultimate quality. I think that’s what’s meant by using expressions like “supreme being” and “most real being” for God. Maybe the real question is whether that word so understood makes sense, and if it makes sense whether it applies to something. I suppose my chief complaint was about claims that experience of the divine is necessarily indefinite, that it can’t gain legitimate concreteness from tradition or whatever, so we always have to supply its concrete content out of current aspirations and experiences. I especially object to such claims made by people asserting authority within institutions like churches that are based on the opposite view of the matter. It seems to me abusive.

Sorry if my last comment didn’t really answer your question, by the way. It’s hard to talk about these things without going back and forth on tangents. One answers by developing one’s own thoughts, and that can take a couple go-rounds.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.

Rem tene, verba sequentur.