Alternative Covenants

Alternative Covenants

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From: George Ellis

… I fully accept ontological uncertainty. This has lead me to realise that there is a need to put forward an alternative to Ursula Goodenough’s “Covenant with Mystery”, which will try to encapsulate the kind of approach I have in mind. Both are attempts to deal with the relation of intellectual understanding to ways of living one’s life – to in some way hold a world-view that encompasses both mind and heart. So here I will try – inadequately – to characterise one such alternative, which I will call a “Covenant with Faith”. I am sure there are others out there who can express it better than I can.

1: First, we start by understanding and acknowledging that ultimate certainty is unattainable.

2: Nevertheless, on the basis of our own understanding and experience – which is all we have to go on – we choose to adopt one of the logically coherent metaphysical options, or faith-positions, as the one that will be used as a basis for living our life.

3: We then proceed to live our lives in the faith that that choice is correct, while still understanding that there is no proof that it is indeed so. To some degree this is an experimental position: one tries it and sees how it works out (that process is described nicely in the book ‘Quaker by Convincement’ by Geoffrey Hubbard).

4: We review it from time to time as experience accumulates, and to some degree tends to confirm it or not. However the fundamental intellectual uncertainty will remain, in that there will always be two opposing interpretations of that experience. Recognising this, one can still proceed with the choice made on a basis of faith and hope.

5. This choice made is irrational in the sense that there is no solid evidence that forces it rather than one of the opposing metaphysical options. This is precisely why faith is needed to make the choice. It is fully rational in the sense that it is a logically coherent position which cannot be disproved by experimental data, and is indeed supported by a great deal of evidence if that evidence is interpreted in a particular way. In the end it provides an overall pattern of understanding that in one’s own experience is of a superior nature to the other options.

A key point to note is that this kind of approach applies in other spheres of life also. Indeed it underlies one’s daily life, whether one likes it or not – unless one is paranoid. This is why I raised the example: How do you know if someone loves you? One has of necessity to approach that kind of question in much the same way as outlined above. It is also the basis of many mature approaches to religious life, including the brand of Quakerism I espouse, and probably mature atheism (but not the Atkins-Dawkins-Dennett variety of atheism, which like all fundamentalisms is a Covenant with Dogmatism). It can then provide a basis for metaphysics and values in a unified way (as approved by Ockham’s razor) that is otherwise lacking. It does not solve the ultimate question of existence (in this case, why God?), which ultimate question remains on all choices made. At that point a Covenant with Mystery arises.

Nota bene 1: The route is often costly – particularly when it involves transformational ethics. The measure of hard religion as opposed to the self-indulgent is its costliness to those who hold it, either in practice, or at least potentially. It poses the question, Are you willing to give up your life for your faith, both in terms of daily living and in terms of ultimate sacrifice?

Nota bene 2. Faith and Hope are two of the theological virtues as well as being fundamental ingredients in much of daily life, and are the basis of the approach above, which is fully distinguishable from a covenant with dogmatism. Nevertheless, the faith and hope are based in a logically reasonable interpretation of one’s life experience.

In many cases this life experience includes experiences – including the kinds of experiences Ursula [Goodenough] mentions – that are interpreted by those at the receiving end as being of a spiritual nature. These may in many cases be delusions of some kind or another, but then again they may not always be of that nature.

As I understand it, Agnosticism is the choice not to make any such choice. That is a perfectly logical and rational approach at an intellectual level. The problem then is, where does the heart come from? Where do you find the values you use to run your life? Any such value choice – which cannot be avoided, but may be implicit rather than explicit – may well involve some decision process such as outlined above, even if it is not brought out into the open.

From: George Ellis

Secondly as regards Michael Cavanaugh’s posting: I am delighted by the concordance of views. Michael asks for affirmation of three points:

> First, to add a developmental component, our beliefs usually are

> handed down to us with our pablum, by both parents and culture. At
> that point they are not so much embraced as imbibed. Indeed, some
> beliefs have even an earlier beginning, insofar as they (or strong
> tendencies toward them) are innate. Sociobiology documents some of
> these, though I hasten to suggest that our outer cortex gives us the
> ability to modify and even reject many of these innate tendencies
> toward certain kinds of beliefs.

Agreed (although in my view the ‘achievements’ of evolutionary psychology are vastly overrated, see the critique by Panksepp and Panksepp in Evolution and Cognition, Vol. 108). But the last point is crucial – we are indeed able to break free from those influences. This has been beautifully characterised in Peter Berger’s writings on sociology, where he talks of this breaking free as ‘ecstasy’.

>Second, I think I hear George saying (and I agree) that it is often
>true that “not to decide is to decide,” so that agnosticism isn’t
>much of an option. But we should note that there are many beliefs
>(e.g. cosmological beliefs) where there is no practical necessity to
>decide at all, and certainly not for a long time. We do not have to
>have a belief about everything, and indeed I doubt that any structure
>of belief, no matter how rigorous, has beliefs about a very large
>percentage of the questions which at least some other persons have

Agreed again. But the key issue to me is the belief system we adopt as our basis for ethical choice as it affects both our personal and our public lives. We of necessity make choices here, on some basis or other. We can either lead a compartmentalised mental life where we keep these value choices quite separate from our scientific and cosmological beliefs (e.g. as in S J Gould’s NOMA approach), or we can try to relate them in some way. In my view the attempt at total separation does not work, specifically because of the dehumanising tendency of some extreme reductionist scientific world-views, to some degree based on present understandings in cosmology, evolutionary theory, and neuroscience, which if taken seriously have important practical implications in terms of how we view and treat our fellow human beings.

>And third, George’s scheme offers an interesting insight into
>idolatry. It is very easy for us humans to cling tenaciously to our
>childhood beliefs or the concepts of our sub-culture, or the
>belief-structure we have personally embraced. When we do that even
>in the face of strong evidence and/or conceptual arguments to the
>contrary, then we can easily lapse into a rigidity, and a
>defensiveness about our earlier beliefs. I suggest that this
>rigidity of belief is the essence of idolatry.

I agree again, and do not have the problem with the use of the word ‘idolatry’ that others have. The core of idolatry is holding that any human being, human idea, or human creation is infallible, and not to be questioned. Thus the Catholic Church is involved in idolatry whenever it claims the Pope is infallible; Protestants are involved in idolatry when they claim the Bible is infallible.

>Thirdly, as regards Ursula’s position: I applaud its warmth and heart
>and commitment, as well as its strong scientific basis, but still
>find it intellectually puzzling. My puzzle is centred in how the
>words “Sacred” and “Holy” can be used meaningfully in a fully
>non-theistic context, for these words carry for me major connotations
>beyond ‘marvelous’, ‘wonderful’, ‘blown away’, etc. Some of Ursula’s
>writing seems to convey a full appreciation of that extra; for
>example “As I allow myself to experience cosmic and quantum mystery,
>I join the saints and the visionaries in their experience of what
>they call the Divine” (The Sacred Depths of Nature, page 13). However
>I realise that something like her position occurs also in the major
>non-theistic eastern religions embraced by many millions of people,
>so it is clearly something I need to ponder further.

Finally, is it unfair to ask that a serious religion, albeit a natural religion, requires strong ethical commitment? In my view, certainly not; indeed that is what defines a serious religious position, as opposed to a self-indulgent one. In these terms, Ursula is indeed serious when she writes:

“It is a belief with consequences, since it commits me to sustainable living, environmental activism, and social justice.”