Reasonable Religion

Part of the pushback against religion, it seems to me, is based on the fear that there might be something rational to it after all.  Sorry to get all philosophical on you on a Saturday morning, but the idea has been bothering me all week.  You see, reductionist thinking has already concluded that religion is “emotion” and science is “reason,” and only the latter has any validity.  When’s the last time you met somebody and asked “How are you thinking?” instead of “How are you feeling?”  Neurologists are finding that reason and emotion can’t be divided with a scalpel; indeed, healthy thinking involves both, not reason alone.  Funnily, this is a natural conclusion of evolution—we evolved to survive in this environment—our brains developed rational faculties to enhance emotional response, not to replace it.

I know this is abstruse; go ahead and get a cup of coffee if you need it.  What if emotion participates in reality?  How can emotion be measured outside of individual experience?  We experience it all the time without thinking about it.  From the earliest of human times we’ve had religion in the mix, in some form.  Perhaps we are evolving out of it, but perhaps neurology is telling us that there’s something to it after all.  Something immeasurable.  Chaos theory can be quite uncomfortable in that regard—every coastline is infinite, if you get down to nano-divisions.  When you measure something do you use the top of the line on the ruler or the bottom?  Or do you try to eyeball the middle?  And how do you do it with Heisenberg standing behind you saying there’s always uncertainty in every measurement?

Absolute reality is beyond the grasp of creatures evolved to survive in a specific environment.  Religion, in some form, has always been there to help us cope.  Yes, many religions mistake their mythology for fact—a very human thing to do—but that doesn’t mean that emotion has nothing to do with rational thought.  It seems that instead of warring constantly maybe science and religion should sit down at the table and talk.  Both would have to agree on the basic ground rule that both are evolved ways of coping with an uncertain environment.  And both would have to, no matter how grudgingly, admit that the other has something to bring to that table.  Rationality and emotion are entangled in brains whose functions are simple survival.  Pitting one against the other is counterproductive, even on a Saturday morning.

Beyond the Facade

Over the summer the New York Historical Society had an exhibit, now over, on Norman Rockwell, Franklin Roosevelt, and the Four Freedoms.  I think we may be down to one or two freedoms by now, but nevertheless.  One weekend my wife and I went to the exhibition.  She’d just read a biography of Rockwell, and although his Americana is my America, I suppose, his pluck is sometimes unnerving.  You see, an artist has to show emotions on people’s faces and in their gestures.  Long ago I learned that if you show what you’re feeling in real life, people will quickly take advantage of you.  I learned, even as a teen, to be subtle.  If you think you’ve got me figured out, here’s a hint—that subtlety continues even into my writing.  It’s often not what it appears to be.

Some months back I wrote a funny piece on this blog.  Some people who actually know me—or the part that I let be known—thought I was depressed.  Or angry.  Or both.  That’s a side effect of subtlety.  Episcopalians have it down to a science.  At least they used to.  The only place they showed emotion was in high mass, and that, if done right, packs a wallop.  One of my brothers comments that I seldom smile.  I might say too much about myself if I did.  What would you do with that knowledge?  In my earliest experience, you might use it to hurt me.  Walking through Manhattan to the exhibit, I noticed the stone facades.  Some buildings have solemn stonework, almost gothic is aspect.  Behind the windows, however, I can sense emotion left unshown.  It’s not very Rockwell.

I admire Rockwell’s outlook.  Indeed, I might share more of it than I want to reveal.  Rockwell, according to the exhibit, believed in America for all races and all creeds.  Strong women dominate his paintings and illustrations.  Equality was what America used to stand for.  And although I’m reluctant to admit it, when my writing’s most serious an element of humor enters in.  Like a Rockwell painting.  He wished to be taken for a serious artist, but had a difficult time suppressing the irony of life itself.  I get that.  It’s just that if other people see what’s beneath the surface—what goes on behind that stone facade?—they will find a means of extorting it.  Best to be subtle.  Words can mean the opposite of what they say or can be literally true.  The shades between the extremes are endless.

Making Believe

Sanity is always temporary. I can say that because we all know that no one acts rationally all the time. Our brains evolved (or were created, if you roll that way) for the simple purpose of survival, not reason. Reasoning, no doubt, helps with survival, but so does feeling. Emotions may be harder to control, and they often take charge despite what we know to be true. When we do something in passion that we can’t justify, our logical brains have developed rationalization to explain it. I’ve been hearing a lot about rationalization lately. Many people who disagreed with just about everything that Trump said still voted for him. Their reasons are various shades of rationalization, but they generally come down to emotion. That’s not to say Hillary supporters didn’t also vote with their feelings. Her historical win of the popular vote demonstrates that very clearly. We didn’t want a demagogue, but we can rationalize our stupidity after the fact.

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I wonder if we haven’t entered an era of international madness. Brexit was an example of what happens when emotion trumps reason. As much as I like the idea of a Pirate Party, when it wins actual Icelandic elections one has to wonder what’s in those volcanic fumes. Talks are underway elsewhere about departing the European Union. Instead of working together it’s each man (literally) for himself. We used to think about politics and leave emotions for our personal lives. Mr. Spock, I’m sure, is somewhere shaking his head. “Illogical,” I can hear him saying.

As a creative person I value the emotional response. Who can say that falling in love is ever rational? There may have been a time when procreating enough to keep the species going may have applied, but we’ve far surpassed that goal and yet we keep on going. In fact, in much of life emotion is far more important that reason. The question, however, as to whether it makes for good government is one with a clear and salient answer. We must elect with our heads, not our hearts. Some will accuse me of playing favorites—after all I’m a bleeding heart liberal. But I’m writing this with reason on my side. Did I think that Ronald Reagan with his trickle-down oppression was a better, more rational leader than Walter Mondale? Have you ever listened to any of Reagan’s speeches? There’s a time—perhaps much time—for emotions to take control. Elections, however, are not one of those times. Anything beyond that is pure rationalization.

Thinking about Feeling

There’s a scene in Shrek where Lord Farquaad tells Princess Fiona “You don’t have to waste good manners on the ogre. It’s not like it has feelings.” That scene came to mind recently as I was pondering how we often use feelings—emotions—to claim superiority over others. During a course on Howard Thurman in seminary, we watched a video where he retold a story that appears in his autobiography With Head and Heart, where a young white girl was sticking an African American with pins because she believed they didn’t have feelings. Although it may be dangerous to attribute motive—let me call it interpretation then—Shrek is a movie about prejudice. Ogres are misunderstood. It’s a parable, if you will. Unfortunately there are people who still believe those not like themselves lack feelings.

This is a particularly disturbing idea for many reasons. Not only does it keep alive the unacceptable social situation where African Americans are shot when unarmed, and frequently in non-criminal situations, it perpetuates the idea that others are different in a way that makes them less than human. We can take this even further since one of the mainstays of science has been to deny feelings to animals, claiming that you need rationality to experience pain. Or at least suffering. Ironically, it’s the “reptilian brain” that provides us with emotions, and rationalists are quick to downplay emotions as a form of thinking. It’s easier just to kill a snake and ask questions later.

We deny others feelings as an excuse to mistreat them. Then we deny that feelings are important at all. Even Mr. Spock got angry once in a while. In a society that regiments an economic system that really benefits only a very few, we daily bask in the midst of this paradox. It’s clear that all it takes to have presidential aspirations threaten reality is money. Spend enough and anyone will believe whatever lies you happen to trumpet. After all, that feeling of superiority that fascism promotes is exactly the way to win a mass following. You’ll have to excuse me if I’m feeling just a bit out of sorts. It’s only a feeling, and it will pass. Unless we pay close attention to our emotions, however, we will never realize justice. We know that Shrek does indeed have feelings. It’s just that we’ve forgotten how to interpret parables.

Think about it.

Think about it.

True Fiction

PassionMusesIn this world of rational materialism, people still turn to fiction. Some prefer it in the form of movies, television, or internet, but those of us “old school” like our fiction in print. No matter how we take it, fiction appeals to that part of us that makes us human—our range of emotions. This became clear to me in The Passionate Muse: Exploring Emotion in Stories. As a typical human, I spend a good part of my mental energy trying to make sense of things. Our social existence can be quite confusing and isn’t always rational. If you doubt this, read the headlines. Keith Oatley offers insight into psychology, or mental life in general, with this little book. We read stories because we like to find ourselves caught up in emotions. Successful writers can draw us into the fictional world not with reason, but with feeling. We seek emotional satisfaction and what we can’t do in fact, we can in fiction.

This aspect of human existence also plays into religious texts. Those of us raised to read sacred texts literally lose a lot of what they have to offer. Fact may tell us what to believe, but fiction helps us learn to feel. Thinking, as many cognitive scientists now believe, incorporates both rational and emotional information. Reality, in other words, isn’t purely reasonable. We interpret things. We interpret with our guts as much as with our heads. This combination of different ways of understanding the world—and the society—around us blends into a distinctly human milieu. We can’t reason our way out of emotions. They are who we are.

While teaching full-time I found myself turning to novels to recover from all the research I was doing. Reading only non-fiction (which, I suppose, is what The Passionate Muse might be) can lead to a lopsided view of life. I’ve had colleagues tell me that fiction is for others—non-academics, those who don’t have the weight of the intellectual world upon their shoulders all the time. Interestingly, since I’ve allowed myself to read more fiction I’ve discovered that the wisdom embedded in stories often surpasses that of erudite monographs. Scholarly literature, of course, has its place. Still, it leaves room on the plate for desert as well. Oatley builds his academic study around a fictional story he wrote to show what he wanted to tell. The rational meets the imaginative. I feel more human already.

Apostle

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I was teaching in a seminary when Robert Duvall’s The Apostle came out. Seeing the favorable reviews, I put it on my wish-list and somehow it never managed to rise to the top. Perhaps it was because I worked at a religious institution 24/7. Seeing a movie about church felt almost superfluous. Many years on now, my wife bought me the DVD (yes, we’re old-fashioned) and we finally sat down to watch it. I realized, as the preaching started, that I didn’t know what to expect. I assumed that Sonny would be a typical Elmer Gantry-type character, cynical and self-centered, but as I kept waiting for the sneering commentary to come, it never did. The movie didn’t valorize Sonny either—he is a flawed preacher who commits murder out of jealousy and flees the state to start a life elsewhere. Landing in rural Louisiana, he begins building a life doing what he does best—preaching. The local people benefit from his presence, so I was waiting for the cracks to appear, but they never did. The movie is amazingly respectful of Holiness, or Pentecostal religion. It left me quite thoughtful.

Having grown up in a non-denominational setting, the scene of the altar call was one that was familiar to me. Fiery sermons were also something I’d seen before. Theological education, of course, causes one to question much of this, which is why many Fundamentalist churches do not hire seminary graduates to be their clergy. Study tends to refine that ability to let go and have emotion become the substance of the service. Recalling my own childhood, steeped in the Bible and fervent fear of Hell, church was primarily an emotional catharsis for me, not an intellectual enterprise. The problem for me was that I couldn’t stop thinking about it. That’s where it often starts to crumble for those who want to understand emotion-driven religion. It doesn’t mix well with rationality.

The Apostle is made all the more powerful for its use of actual Holiness preachers in the movie. When they’re preaching, they’re not acting. They’re preaching on film. Part of the draw, I suppose, for many viewers is that this is a foreign world. Mainstream church services are often subdued, perhaps even dour, by comparison. They are, however, more rationally driven. The substance of any mainstream liturgy derives in some form from Catholicism. Pentecostalism dismisses all of that, retaining the music and the sermon and the Bible. Otherwise, they are practically different species. The storyline of the movie isn’t anything grand. Preacher commits crime, repents, gets caught. Still, there’s an authenticity to it that makes it compelling. No Jim Jones here. No David Koresh. Just a man, in many ways typical, trying to make his way in the world in the only way he knows how. And that can be inspirational.

Evolution’s Snapshots

DarwinsCameraIn America’s political climate any book about Darwin takes on a religious cast. As strange as it may seem, an odd equation exists between Darwin, evolution, creation, and the Bible. We forget that Darwin was a retiring man with many interests and a very keen intellect. Erstwhile groomed for the clergy, he lived at a time when much of the world was known really only to the local inhabitants, and observations were still mostly made by the human eye in person. So it was that as photography developed, a new avenue into science opened up. Darwin’s Camera, by Phillip Prodger, is a rare look into, as the subtitle says, Art and Photography in the Theory of Evolution. Darwin wrote several books. Among them was The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. This book was among the first scientific tomes published with photographic evidence to illustrate, if not prove, the points being made. Prodger takes us through the process by which Darwin procured and commissioned his photographs for the book and reveals some deeper truths about his life.

Interestingly, one of the sources of early photos was asylums. There was a belief, apparently, that photographs might be used diagnostically. One of the emotions that was presented to Darwin for his consideration was religious rapture. (Not that I can make any great claims here, but having experienced at least mild versions of such states—whatever their physiological cause—I know that they are powerful.) The observation comes through that religious rapture is difficult to distinguish from insanity, on the face of it. This may sound like an anti-religious slur, but it’s not. Ask around the mystics and you’ll see what I mean. Sanity has its uses, to be sure, but mysticism is all about letting go.

The only real religion in this book comes in the confrontations to Darwin’s evolutionary theory. Prodger does, however, briefly delve into Darwin’s late (and brief) concern about spirit photography. Shortly after cameras were developed, photographic tricks evolved. The Victorians, as we all know, had a very palpable sense of death’s nearness. It is no accident that Spiritualism developed during this time period when a reasonable lifespan was anything but assured. Spirit photographers claimed to capture ghosts of the dead revisiting the living. Darwin, who’d lost a beloved daughter prematurely, knew what grief was. He did not, however, allow it to interfere with his critical thinking. Photographs could be used to prove a point, but they could also be used to make a false claim. Darwin’s success in his book on emotions falls somewhere in the middle. He did have to have some staged shots to illustrate his point. Ever the gentleman, however, Darwin’s decisions were made to enlighten, not to deceive. One wonders whether creationism can even remotely make that same claim.