Thursday, September 5, 2013

Journal of a Soul 29

Beyond Debate

Self writing in a notebook , Pisa Summer 2007
Debating is a skilled activity that allows the intellect to show its cutting edge, as it were.  It is, moreover, wonderful to witness when practised by those who know their subjects well.  It is even more thrilling, still, to behold one debater either totally demolishing the argument of another or, at least, painstakingly taking it apart and showing its inherent flaws.  As this is a blog with a spiritual/psychodynamic/psychotherapeutic thrust, I shall here confine my comments to matters of faith and reason with respect to the methodology of debate. Examples of debates that come to mind here are: (i) the famous debate on evolution at Oxford in 1860 between the scientist Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 - 1895; biologist and coiner of the term "agnosticism," his favored religious stance) and the great orator, Samuel Wilberforce (1805 - 1873), Bishop of Oxford and later of Winchester, and (ii) the wonderful debate between the late wonderful journalist, writer, atheist and polemicist, Christopher Hitchens (1949 - 2011) and the former British P.M. Tony Blair, Catholic and wonderful orator and politician. This latter debate may be accessed : HERE

However, debating is cerebral and cognitive and is mainly confined to linear argumentation, though debaters may, of course, present in a logical way the findings of their reflections on experiences - religious and spiritual - and on emotions in general.  They may even, and very often do, employ humour and respect for their opponents.  But, my argument here is that debate is a limited, albeit, at times, very sharp and precise, methodology of approaching knowledge and truth.  There is, so much more to what makes us human than arguing about our beliefs and stances in life.  Our beliefs, contrary to what Christopher Hitchens or Richard Dawkins or Daniel Dennett think, cannot be confined within the parameters of logical, cerebral or inferential debating.  In other words, I am here adumbrating what in fact the great nineteenth century theologian, John Henry Cardinal Newman (1801-1890) expressed succinctly in the following words: "Faith is not a deduction from premises" or as he also expressed it "faith is never inferential."  It is as much a matter of the heart as well as the head.  He was, in these remarks, of course, echoing the comments of the great French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal (1623 -1662) who emphasised the following: "le coeur as ses raisons que la raison ne connait point." ("The heart has its reasons which reason can never know.")

More to Life than Logic  

St Peter's Square from the Cupola
As I write these lines here, I am listening to the wonderful debate and ensuing discussion to which I alluded above and to which I have given the link.  Yet I am still convinced that more is needed, and that the methodological structures of debate, argument and discussion, while effective, are nonetheless lacking is something.  It is to that lack that I wish to confine my musings here. These are my thoughts after some 55 years as a wee ant on this little minuscule anthill we call "earth"which is hurtling through infinite space.  So what I say is said in as humble a way as I possibly can.  I have no great reasons to give on either side of the debate like either Wilberforce or Huxley or Blair or Hitchens, though it is wonderful to listen to, to read and/or ponder the learned musings of these great erudite debaters.  No, rather, I wish to widen the debate in the following points.

(i) Debaters seem to forget that Religion is both a sociological and psychological phenomenon, not to mention an anthropological one, not essentially amenable to logical debate, though nonetheless may be expressed and eruditely explicated in reasonable terms.  Peoples have always been religious because it is a way, be it primitive or primal, but no less true or authentic for all that, of making sense of their lives as a community as they encounter the world in its entirety.  In coming up with how they make sense of the mystery they encounter in the world as a complete entity these peoples collectively came up in a natural manner over time with firstly the various primitive religions, animist and polytheistic, and then the major great monotheistic religions of the Abrahamic Faiths (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) and the more holistic, and perhaps more psychologically friendly religions of the East namely Hinduism and Buddhism.  

Religion as a sociological Phenomenon

(a) The contemporary Irish journalist John Waters, speaking of the few positive things one can attribute to the Roman Catholic Church, averred that it was exceptionally good at those ceremonial things associated with "hatching, matching and dispatching."  When I first read his words, I delighted not alone in his light rhyming humour but also in his sound appreciation for ritual.  The religious rituals he had in mind here, without doubt, are baptisms and christenings, marriage and funeral ceremonies respectively. Sociologically speaking, it is not a question of whether another life exists or not, or even whether it can be proved one way or another; it is rather a question of dealing with death as a human reality within a community context in as meaningful a way as possible.  Such ceremonies are ways of dealing with the phenomenon of death and they have naturally evolved over the years to help the bereaved family, friends and acquaintances deal with their emotions at a community and by implication at a personal level.  Rituals, no matter what religious faith they occur in offer a collectively and individually healing avenue to express and contain grief. Sociologically rituals have evolved to help us in that containment.  Even a humanist or atheist funeral service offers a similar emotional expression or containment.  Indeed, I have attended one humanist funeral recently and the ceremony, which studiously and purposely avoids any mention of God needless to say, was akin to a religious ceremony replete with readings and "minister."  It obviously had no overtly religious element like a mass or scripture readings, but it emphasised instead secular readings from books which the departed person loved and encouraged the bereaved by playing the dead man's favourite music.  There were also three tributes to the departed by his family and friends.  There was interestingly a period of quiet where people of all faiths, beliefs and no beliefs were asked to think of the departed man in silence.  Obviously, any believer could choose to pray to his God if he so wished at that time.

To Be Continued

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