Monday, 14 February 2011

What's Left When Nothing is Said?

I think I want to say clearly, that for some people all the doctrines in the world can be challenged and stripped away, and they are still left with an inner conviction of an Other. They might accept all the arguments of say historical limitation, research and science and the rest, but still regard a transcendent power to have presence.

Fine, but this is not actually my main argument - even if I don't have that conviction myself. My argument is really about the sociology of knowledge and the application of religious beliefs, all of which seem to be olde-worlde in origin and form. I am interested why some people equate religion and stories (narratives) in a philosophical manner when they have a contemporary outlook.

In my outlook, which is more about a spiritual pathway and life direction, the issue is how to marry religious words of impact with contemporary forms of understanding. What I accept (and indeed what was clear to liturgists at the end of the nineteenth century as this quandary became evident) is that religious language is inevitably out of date and even out of sense in the terms of all other use of language. Yet this inheritance ends up being reused and it seems so very difficult to invent contemporary religious language.

I suppose the Unitarian community is made up of two halves in general. One is people roughly like me, who see ongoing value in the religious task and seek to find appropriate language and actions to represent this, and to strip out being misleading in expression. We see, along with William James, that expression gives rise to experience, but expression has to gain some consistency across the board - from science, to social science, to the arts and to religion. The other half is those who have stripped away beliefs they either can't achieve or no longer want and yet have an inner conviction of some spiritual, real, core, that can be called God or Spirit or some such name. For them experience comes first and then they look for appropriate language.

The philosophical difficulty I have with the latter position is this: that all experience is itself symbolic, and leads directly to a broad definition of 'language'. Painting, music, writing are all symbolic forms, language of accuracy or inaccuracy, all if which are formed from 'interpretation'. To be brief, interpretation is already interpretation. This also cuts into the sciences and social sciences, but where I differ with the hardline non-realist or poststructuralist is that research is clearly an activity outwards that delivers results not always within our own creative desires. In other words, it goes into a real, even if that real is itself symbolised and only can be transmitted through language. Language is not then purely self-referential, but strives for accuracy outside of itself even if still using itself.

I do not see this with religion, and one reason why not is because those who have inner conviction of a spiritual real end up speaking of being language-less in a kind of ultimate state. It's not like any other real. Otherwise they would strive for accuracy of language - and there is no accuracy of language when it comes to religion. Up against the 'real' it becomes purely subjective.

That work has already been done: James Martineau moved towards a pure theism and realised that it was achieved with maximum subjectivity. He also realised that liturgy used an olde-worlde language and thought forms to generate that sense of outer being.

Whilst this does suggest a beyond language core to some, the inability of accuracy suggests a blank to me. Now this can be consistent with much Buddhism, although the 'blank' in Buddhism might be likened to an inverted real, but not quite the non-real of the Western philosopher. Perhaps Buddhism meets what some Christians have called Real Absence. Once asked whether I was on the side of non-realism or Real Absence, I went along with non-realism - but it is very close indeed. The difference is rice-paper thin.


Erika Baker said...

You speak of the purely subjective as if that automatically implied a level of non-realism. And even the collective testimony of people who all experience the same "purely subjective" and grapple to put it into words doesn't make you consider that something real can be found in what you call purely subjective.

You sometimes remind me of a professor of music who knows all the theory better than I ever will but who has never listened to a single note, never actually heard a piece being played. Who speaks of “linguistic work having already been done” as if that said anything meaningful about the tunes being played.
And in some respects, I'm full of admiration, because I certainly would not have spent years of my life trying to understand the theory of something that isn't actually real to me.

It's not surprising that when the written notes and the theories surrounding the written notes disappear there is nothing left but deconversion.

But for those of us who are still in the concert hall, the written notes are entirely incidental to what we're hearing. And when we leave the concert hall and try to describe what we've heard, we find that our language just doesn't do the trick. I mean - how would you describe the second movement of Mozart's clarinet concerto in words? Those who heard it will understand parts of the clumsy description we might try to make and the clumsy description, the faulty written notes, will make sense to them.

But how do you speak to someone who can only see written notes and who believes the concert to be "purely subjective"?

So your question about why we keep using ancient concepts and ancient language is quite simple: because it works. Because to those who’ve been at the concert, those words and those concepts are what helps them to stay in touch with the music.
Because the biblical text we refer to happens to have been written so long ago that its language is, naturally, archaic, and because we discover that while we might read the “Street Bible” or any other of the modern permutations that abound, we find that we’re quite content with the ancient images.

Like Mimi, I'm not trying to convert you, my God, no. But while you're still grappling with the issue, I will answer as best as I can.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Then you agree with James Martineau, at least.

You make me sound tone deaf.

Erika Baker said...

I wouldn't presume to say!
But you do sometimes strike me as someone who goes to a concert and then insists that the purpose and the meaning have to be found in the programme booklet.

Whether you're tone deaf or whether you could hear the music if you started to listen for it instead of reading about it, I couldn't possibly guess.

Rachel said...

wow Erika - with your permission, could I put that amazing analogy up on my blog for many more people to read with credit to you? I will wait for your reply and no pressure...up to you...

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

Actually, that "amazing analogy" is a well worn one from people who think they have 'got it' and keep telling others they haven't.

Erika Baker said...

"a well worn one from people who think they have 'got it' and keep telling others they haven't."

I hope that's not what I'm doing.

When you ask questions like "why use this kind of language", you can of course only ask those who are in the same boat as you. And you can intellectualise the question and thereby put it firmly in its pre-defined place.

But if the question is asked in any way seriously, doesn't it make sense to listen to the answers of those who find the language helpful?

Maybe I'm still making the mistake of believing that you are interested in a conversation or that the questions you are blogging about aren't just rhetorical and that you don’t already know all the answers. I should have learned by now, shouldn’t I.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

No, I think you don't need to carry a battering ram around with you on this issue. I'm saying what I am about language with no implication whether those signals of transcendence are joined or not. They are in your case. I can still hear the music and I can still shut my eyes and meditate to the music. You keep preaching denial that what I have is what there is, whereas I am allowing for various possibilities.

Erika Baker said...

I didn't think I was preaching anything, sorry if that's how it comes across.
I'm certainly not preaching "denial".

Please correct me because I might really misunderstand your position badly:

I have come to believe that you acknowledge the possibility of transcendence but that is it not a reality for you.

I therefore assume that you cannot make a connection between the words religion uses and what they are connecting to, i.e. what you call transcendence.

So when you talk about the purpose of the words all I can say is that to people who make the connection, they make sense and they don't need to be changed or modernised and be made, somehow, more meaningful. They are not perfect but they do the job.

Basically, what I've said is that what makes intuitive sense to a believer doesn’t make sense to a non-believer.

If you experience that simple statement as preaching or trying to convert you or telling you that you don't measure up, then I don't really know what else to say that’s less controversial. This is about as basic as conversation gets.

But I suppose what you’re really saying is that you weren’t asking a question at all. You were posing a question and then giving yourself the one answer that works for you. That’s fine.
I read it, it was an interesting post.

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

That's better, nice and soothing: a bit of sugar with the medicine. But a very big spoon - open wide and shove.

Erika Baker said...

OK, are you going to answer my question of whether I got your position completely wrong and if so, put me right?

Pluralist (Adrian Worsfold) said...

I can only repeat. That for me there are signals of transcendence. There may be transcendence. On the difference between Real Absence and non-realism, I'm on the non-realism side. I appreciate the symbolic nature of religion as a means to work out my dharma. So you can have your beliefs and I'll have mine. Mine I'll do in the Unitarians, I think you remian in the C of E.

Is that an answer? What other answer do you seek?

Pub calls.

Erika Baker said...

Thank you for that.
It clarifies a lot that I hadn't understood from your previous posts.
Certainly, it explains why you struggle with the language yet still engage with it.

And I like what you've been writing about the Unitarians, definitely a learning curve there.

Enjoy the pub!