Religious Knowledge and Religious Leadership

The first question which skeptics ask of religious believers is “How do you know?” This question is closely followed by another: “Who decides?” These are both, in fact, excellent questions. There are many, many religious teachers who make entirely unwarranted claims, and much religion is, as its critics allege, a system of mystifications which serves to legitimate power which is exercised to exploit and dominate. We will look at specific doctrines and system of doctrines which serve such purposes in later posts. For now I want to establish that it is possible to have authentic knowledge regarding religious matters, to provide readers with a simple standard to use in distinguishing between valid and invalid claims (while leaving in between a substantial grey area) and to settle once and for all the question of “Who decides?”

My answer to the first question –that our knowledge in spiritual matters comes from reason– is likely to be unpopular. Our age has a complicated relationship with reason. Some –especially those formed in the sciences– take it as the sole arbiter of what is true and what is not. But they also so narrow the scope of reason that any answer it might give regarding claims on behalf of meaning is fixed from the very beginning in the negative. We will see why in a minute. Others blame “Western Rationality,” for the many evils of the modern world, from the destruction of the ecosystem and the transformation of human beings into batteries by industrial modes of production, capitalist and socialist, for the totalitarian dynamic at the heart of the modern state, and for the crisis of meaning and values –for the death of the spirit in the modern world. They propose instead to found spirituality on feeling or intuition or revelation.

What both positions share is narrow concept of reason, one which unnecessarily limits the truths to which it can aspire. Let me explain.

Most premodern philosophical traditions distinguish between different degrees of rationality. For purposes of this discussion, I will use the Thomistic terminology, but there are others which might serve equally well. Thomas argues that while all knowledge begins with the senses, we actually know what things are by means of abstraction. There are, furthermore, three distinct degrees of abstraction. The first is totalization. Here we abstract from the individual –Fido or Fifi– to the larger totality or category to which they belong: that of dogs. The category, at this level, is still ill defined: a list of shared properties at most. But it is enough to allow us to use language quite effectively for everyday ordinary purposes.

The second level of abstraction we call formalization. At this level we analyze the structure of a thing, making a formal model of it, and thus arriving at a rigorous definition. The most common way of doing this, and the way which defines modern science, is by writing an equation or some other mathematical formalism. This type of abstraction is especially good at providing us with a rigorous description of how things work. Thus the connection between modern science and industrial technology.

What formalization doesn’t tell us is why things are the way they are and what their purpose is. This is the province of the degree of abstraction which Thomas called the separatio, because it separates out from things their act of Being and which we prefer to call transcendental abstraction, because it points us towards the transcendental properties of Being: Beauty, Truth, Goodness, and Oneness.

Transcendental abstraction is fundamentally a reasoning about purposes. This is the kind of reasoning which helps us address spiritual questions –indeed questions of meaning and value generally. And it does this quite simply. If we ask what a thing is for, its purpose, and follow this search through all intermediate purposes, we arrive ultimately at the fact that everything seeks Being. Minerals seek Being by conserving their form. Plants seek Being through nutrition, growth, and reproduction. Animals seek Being through sensation and locomotion. And we humans, rational animals that we are, seek Being by creating new and ever more complex forms of organization.

This means that Being is not just a principle. It is also a value. As the object of perception, it is Beauty. In order to exist things need to have harmony and integrity and disclose their principle. As the object of judgment, Being is Truth. When something exists either in itself or in something else we affirm its existence. As the object of desire, Being is the Good. It is what we seek. And in itself, it is One. Try chopping something up. It is no longer –at least no longer what it was before its encounter with our knife. These are the transcendental properties of Being, the properties that everything has in so far as they exist. Thus the term transcendental abstraction.

Notice here that we have taken the same facts used by the scientific detractors of religion –basic facts describing the material universe– and, by looking at them just a little bit differently, using the lens of transcendental abstraction, we have already discovered a powerful spiritual truth. We have discovered that the universe we live in is not just a mechanistic system, but a rich, dynamic, meaningful system, yearning for Being.

And we have done this without appeal to any claims which cannot, at least, be rationally defended. Nothing we have claimed is the result of private intuition or special revelation. While someone might reasonably raise objections to what we have said, we can answer those objections by an appeal to further arguments. Those participating in the debate or listening to it can decide for themselves what they think.

This does not mean, to be sure, that there are no good reasons for doubt. For now we are just trying to show how religious knowledge is possible, and have sketched out an argument for the ultimate meaningfulness of the universe and for the existence of a first principle of meaning and value merely as an illustration. A more rigorous argument, which we will offer in later posts, would have to answer some very credible objections. One the one hand, advocates of a narrower scientific rationality will argue that the universe can be explained more simply and economically in terms of random variation and natural selection, without recourse to the level of discourse we are suggesting, which points towards Being as a first principle and final cause. Others, whose attitude is more typical of late modernity and postmodernity, will ask why, if the universe is ordered to Being, it is so full of conflict, death, and destruction. We will answer these objections at an appropriate point in our discussion.

Similarly, our argument in favor of reason as the ultimate arbiter of religious truth is not meant to exclude higher wisdoms, a knowledge of first principles which is nonconceptual and experiential and which sometimes, at least, speaks to others in the language of image and story. But we do want to maintain that even if these other wisdoms are in some sense higher, offering an experience of a principle to the existence of which reason attests, but which it cannot comprehend, our ability to rely on the authenticity of such experiences depends on the witness of reason. Otherwise we would not be able to distinguish between progress towards enlightenment and a degeneration into ever deeper illusion.

But all that will become clearer as our discussion proceeds. What we have done thus far is merely to establish that rational deliberation regarding fundamental questions of meaning and value is indeed possible. And this in turn suggests an answer to the question of Who decides? in spiritual matters: ultimately each individual decides for him or herself. Human beings are constituted by the capacity for transcendental abstraction and it is ultimately up to each individual to decide which arguments they regard as convincing or at least credible and which they do not.

This said, some people have developed their capacity for transcendental abstraction further than others, having mastered humanity’s ongoing deliberations sufficiently to teach others that history or even to make fundamentally new contributions to the discussion. It is this capacity which is the basis of religious leadership. It is the task of religious scholars to lead their communities in deliberation regarding fundamental questions of meaning and value. And it is the obligation of the people to seek out formation which can help them to develop the ability to make rationally autonomous decisions regarding fundamental questions of meaning and value, to listen and give serious consideration to claims and arguments from diverse perspectives, and to decide where they stand on the basis of these arguments. But it is still the people, individually and collectively (depending on the question at hand) who decide both which scholars they will consult and which their arguments the accept.

It is in this spirit that the claims and arguments made in this blog, and in Seeking Wisdom’s other work are offered, both to other scholars and to the people as a whole. Let’s look forward to enlightening deliberations!

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