Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Doctrine and Religion

This post is meant as a companion to the last—in which I attempted to define the personal experience of religion. I defined personal religion as an attitude and orientation in which an intuition of a transcending “beyond” has a genuine reality. While I view this experience as arising in an innate intuition of reality, an “intimation of immortality”—something that trumps, as it were, various conceptual formulations of it—I’m still fully aware that people have the use of intellect and reason and that a fully mature person will have a comprehensive view in which a conceptual framework will be present as well. Today more on the later aspect.

A doctrine literally means a teaching. In the western religious traditions, all of which are revealed religions, the teaching is the elaboration of a revelation directly or indirectly received from God. In the eastern tradition, and here I have the Buddha in mind, the teaching concerns the elaboration of the meaning of an experience persons had—and also about what they themselves said about it. In both cases a certain acceptance, usually labeled faith, is necessary before the doctrine, the teaching, can be considered on its own merits. The fundamental character of such teachings is precisely this faith or this acceptance. There is no way that the ordinary human, even with a great deal of diligence and effort, can replicate the experience on which the doctrine rests. Religious doctrines have a very different character from what we call hypotheses or theories.

To reduce the western religious conception to its absolute grounding premise, it says that the ultimate creator of reality intervenes in its creation at certain times in order to communicate its will to many people through one person. Acceptance of this premise is, I submit, required to go further into the specifics of a doctrine.

The Buddha’s teaching contains another basic assertion, namely that a realm of suffering exits where the illusion of the self is present. The self is created by attachments. When all these are withdrawn, we enter a kind of blissful annihilation.

People who have serious, sincere difficulties with either of these essentials will be left to form their own explanations of the nature of reality. What they must accept as given is that from time to time religious faiths arise from the experiences of individuals, that these experiences are very evidently of a greatly persuasive and very energetic nature—sufficiently so that they produce huge social phenomena that spread over time and, by and large, produce more benefits than harm.

Clashes between groups, the use of coercion to make unbelievers comply with the teaching, persecutions, wars, inquisitions, and crusades do not, alas, at all require a religious orientation. The religious aspect in these phenomena is incidental, not central. What is central in them is the drive to power. The twentieth century brought us ample, indeed rich samples of each of these negatives under entirely secular conditions.

It does not take a great deal of faith to believe in truth, justice, and the good. That comes with personal religion, as I’ve outlined in the last post. The doctrines, however, belong—because of their basic premises—to the realm of judgment.

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