Monday, November 15, 2010

Religion and Doctrine

I would here contrast religion as a personal experience and religion as a structure of doctrines. The first I would define as an attitude or orientation to reality—but with a twist. It holds within it an awareness of something beyond the tangible experiences of our day to day life—also something beyond projections derived from observing the world, thus such concepts as “humanity,” “nation,” “cosmos,” “history,” and so on. Under my definition Marxism would not qualify as a religion despite its detection of a “dialectical process” in history—however appropriately airy-fairy that sounds. Nor would atheism or materialism qualify. The last two would deny anything “beyond” the experienced. Atheists with odd intimations of positive meanings hidden somewhere invisibly have already committed heresy, as it were, in their hearts.

Intimation here is a good word although, for me, the German Ahnung, is best. Its derivation is from Die Ahnen, or the ancestors—and they’re definitely no longer here. Wordsworth’s title, Intimations of Immortality, fits my purpose nicely. My personal experiences of the religious take this form, the form of intimations, and they arise from poetry, myth, literary, and other artistic forms, including music. A sneering realist would label all this mere emotionalism—but I view such criticism as arising from the absence of inner powers rather than their presence.

Religion as experienced is an intuition. The moment concepts arise, and we hear of God quite early in life, we enter another realm. We learn to associate certain intuitions with certain structures of concepts. Intimations are intimate, personal. When I was young the concept of God produced in me images of a person in the sky. It did not connect with my own experience of awe—indeed has never linked that way in the intimate sense except in moments of extreme anxiety or gratitude. Odd, that, isn’t it. In certain moments when feelings rise beyond the normal range, when they transcend the average, we reach for the nearest concept of transcendence. There are no atheists in the trenches.

Experience teaches transcendence—and not just in extreme moments. But one does not experience it in a concrete, tangible way as one experience a tree, for instance, when climbing it as a child. The transcendental is ineffable yet felt as real. And the more open the top of one’s head, the more real it is and becomes. But between this experience and the doctrines of religions there is an enormous gulf—one so deep that the Grand Canyon would seem, by contrast, to be a mere line in the sand drawn by a wooden match-stick.

For these reasons I treat all scriptures as poetry—and view poetry as humanity’s highest achievement. I resist doctrinal claims to be communicating tangible realities, to describe in detail, however vague, what God intends or once might have done. Regarding that concept I hew resolutely to a negative theology and assert, no matter what I hear, “Not that, not that.” In the poetic mode I hear of “God walking in the garden in the cool of the day” in Genesis 3:8—and that’s fine with me, not least what came before and comes after. Eventually, by a long process, this inspiration turns into something that has nothing to do with intimations of the high; poetry is turned into doctrine; and by that time it has sunk out of my sight.

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