Caputo: Chapter Two—What Do We Do With Religious Truth?—Part Four

Picking up from the last train of thought in this series, Caputo notes again the importance of what is going on in this expression we call “religion”:
“When people wear veils over their faces or go to church on Sunday morning, they are doing something important, not because they have heard a supernatural being calling from the sky…but because their hearts are restless for something they know not what and are not content with the world as it is.  If we don’t see that, we will be people watching dancers without hearing the music.  When I speak of something we ‘know not what’ I am underlying the search for truth described by Lessing.  Truth is a work in progress, and we are on a journey whose future is hidden from us, hoping against hope that the future is always better.”
A critical thing Caputo is pointing out here is that many “religious” people do not think they know for certain whatever it is they believe in to be the total or final word about truth or reality.  And even if they do believe that, they know at the same time their grasp of that truth is certainly not the truth itself—only a limited, partial, and incomplete response to it.  They are responding, as best they know how, to this “restless” longing or awareness the great majority of people have felt from recorded history up to the present.  To chalk this up to a “meme”, mental illness, or stupidity requires a sort of obtuseness and shallowness the likes of which are hard to fathom.  One could imagine showing this sort of person a Rembrandt only to have them remark that their children like to draw pictures too and this common practice is probably something we evolved to make sense of our world.  Oh, okay.  Caputo continues:
“So the postmodern question I pose is this: since polytheism does not appear poised to make a comeback, is there some idea or religious truth that we can defend without destroying the political solution, which is to keep the hands of the confessional religions out of the pockets of the public—without getting involved in the potentially lethal notion of the true religion?  Further yet, is there even such a thing as religious truth or even true religion.  My answer is that the idea of the one true religion is a conceptual mistake, a misconstrual of the sort of truth religion possesses…”
In other words, Caputo is opening up another lane here.  He is providing a way for us to say while there may be no way we can claim this religion over here or the one over there to be the only true religion, we can say there is something “truthful” going on in those individual searches and expressions—something that actually does bring truth to bear upon the world and in so doing tells us something true about that world.  He goes on:
“…But there is such a thing as religious truth, which we can see in the expression ‘to pledge my troth’.  In that situation, we are speaking about truth as something to do, about the truth we must make come true, the truth to which we pledge to be faithful, which nourishes a form of life.  I think that without this, without a certain postmodern repetition of religion, without what philosopher Jacques Derrida calls a ‘religion without religion’, we would be the less for it.  We would cut off a certain eccentric counterpart to what the ancients called wisdom.  The ancients linked truth and passion, while we have unlinked them.  What is true or religious truth is also true of art and politics and ethics, and a lot of other things, all of which represent postmodern scenes where truth overflows Enlightenment rationality and permits other varieties of truth to flourish.”
One may need to pause here and ask himself: do I believe there are other “varieties” of truth?  Is it true that the earth is round?  Yes.  But is it also true the Holocaust was evil?  Yes.  Are they true in the same way or established the same way?  No.  Is that okay?  Yes.  Is one assertion less true than the other?  No.  Or, perhaps one believes there is only one variety or way something can be true.  How is this not comparable to the person who thinks there to be only one “true” religion, namely, his religion?  If allowing another type of truth to flourish takes nothing away from truths like the earth being round and also gives gravity or weight to making events like the Holocaust taboo and unacceptable, then why the objection?  My sense is that is it a purely ideological objection, based upon a prior faith choice to exclude God/transcendence from existing.  It is the same reasoning used by the fundamentalist who must believe same sex attraction to be sin; it is a purely ideological objection based upon a prior faith choice to “read” the Bible in a particular way.  By “reading” the natural world in a flat, wooden, and literal way, the atheist must draw a fact/value distinction.  The religious fundamentalist “reads” the Bible in the same way although with clearly different results.  The same mentality however is present in each “reading.”  Caputo continues:
“Not only does the postmodern approach promise more amicable dinner parties, it is more philosophically satisfying than a merely political handshake to agree to disagree.  We do not want to undermine the commitment of modernity to emancipate us from Church and king, from superstition and hide-bound traditionalism, and we do not want to give up modern anesthesiology the next time we need surgery.  But we do want to be more enlightened when we speak about Enlightenment, less naïve when we speak about science, and less benighted when we speak about religion, art and ethics, not to mention everyday life, and all this in the name of truth.”
This strikes me as a reasonable balance.  However I doubt that either the religious or secular fundamentalist will like this idea.  It would mean questioning their certainty about what can be true and how truth can be established.
“We postmoderns distrust the buckets that modernity carries around.  This distrust will get us beyond the ideal of a dispassionate state of mutual tolerance to a more sensitive appreciation of what is going on in the religions, the passionate searching that they embody, as well as a more sensitive appreciation of art and ethics.  Postmodernism also means postsecularism, where secularism is an artifice of modernity, a result of bucket-thinking.  We would do a better job with truth if we started by trying to understand the religions from within instead of viewing religious people from without—as deluded people whose right to be deluded is guaranteed by the constitution.”

If we want the “culture wars” to stop, it is imperative we quit listening to the new atheists and the religious right.  Both can only think in “buckets” and neither can understand the other from within.  They can only see the “other” as distant and foreign.  Each imagines the “other” in mythic and ignorant ways almost completely stereotypical and based in urban legend, anecdotes, and folktales.  This is a dead-end.  It is the playground of the uninformed and shallow.
“I propose a philosophical resolution of the problem that will supplement the political one, strengthen it, not weaken it, while getting beyond both an excessively rigid idea of reason as robotic and a blunted view of religion as a formally protected right that is substantively a delusion.  For all this to work I need a good example of ‘repetition’.  As you may suspect, I have had one up my sleeve all along.”

And with that we will move into chapter 3 with my next post. 
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4 Responses to Caputo: Chapter Two—What Do We Do With Religious Truth?—Part Four

  1. Burk says:

    Darrell-

    “Is it true that the earth is round? Yes. But is it also true the Holocaust was evil? Yes. Are they true in the same way or established the same way? No. Is that okay? Yes. Is one assertion less true than the other? No. Or, perhaps one believes there is only one variety or way something can be true. How is this not comparable to the person who thinks there to be only one “true” religion, namely, his religion? If allowing another type of truth to flourish takes nothing away from truths like the earth being round and also gives gravity or weight to making events like the Holocaust taboo and unacceptable, then why the objection?”

    Thank you for putting this case so succinctly. It showcases how the definition of truth is getting mangled, and for what? So that you can buttress your moral imprecations with a new word with special powers? Powers that were earned by others for other purposes?

    There is a problem, and it is not okay to conflate your moral sense with objective reality.. i.e. the word “truth”. Moral senses have every right to rule and judge our affairs. There is no problem with that. You can say that killing innocent people is bad. And most would agree. But what is “true” about this? It is true that it describes how you feel. But that is as far as it goes. There is no other metric, other than the feelings of those who agree with you, which all comes up to the same thing. Is good sex “true”? If everyone likes it, does it make something “true”? What could be more absurd?

    Even if this misclassification helps makes bad things taboo, that is no excuse for degrading our philosophical language and understandings. One reason is that this conflation has such a sorry history, whereby every religion (and social system generally) tries to set up its moral judgements as “truth”, so as to enforce its codes and make them seem unalterable. It is the oldest con in the book, and we are way beyond it, intellectually. Codes are indeed alterable, for anyone with eyes to see. We change them all the time to suit our needs. Sure, it is good to have stable ideals to organize a society, to enable accountability, etc. But making as if they are gifts of the universe rather than our own wisdom sells humanity substantially short.

    And that fact you then go on to stake all this on the bible and theology says it all.. that this is not a simple observation of the world and its objectivity, but rather a theological project dedicated to seeing our greatest accomplishments come from some imaginary totem which will in turn sponsor various forms of future magic on our behalf, like salvation, life-after-death, transcendent justice, etc. What is post-modern about all that? Nothing.

    It is great calling your opponent uninformed and shallow. It is a sign that they are seeing a little too deeply for comfort. My blog next week will be on a therapeutic model of religion.

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  2. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “Thank you for putting this case so succinctly. It showcases how the definition of truth is getting mangled…”

    You mean “your” definition of truth is getting mangled. This is always upsetting to those who feel they have a corner on “the” truth.

    “There is a problem, and it is not okay to conflate your moral sense with objective reality.. i.e. the word “truth”.”

    It is instructive you feel it merely my personal moral sense. This begs the question. Further, just like with God, the existence of a transcendental moral aspect to reality is not the same as claiming we can pick up morality on radar, so there is no conflation.

    “And that fact you then go on to stake all this on the bible and theology says it all…”

    Where has Caputo brought in the Bible or even theology really? He is making a philosophical argument.

    “It is great calling your opponent uninformed and shallow…”

    Those in the extremes whether the Religious Right or the New Atheists, are uniformed and shallow about the “other”. They just are. My goodness, just read their stuff. I'm saying nothing new. I shun both camps and do not wish to inhabit either. A pox on both houses. That is the difference between us.

    By the way, 99% or your comment was just begging-the-question. I'm never sure if this is an actual strategy of argument with you or if you are just entirely unaware of it (or both?).

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  3. Burk says:

    Darrell-

    What seems question begging to you is doubtless just a challenge to your definition of terms and the terms of debate. As if you could just redefine the meaning of truth and then everyone else who differs is begging the question of your lofty new innovation. It is absurd.

    It is true that we see things differently. I see religion as an artistic and psycho-therapeutic practice, with no intellectual / philosophical content whatever worth the name, let alone truth. Its truth is entirely of the practical psychological sort, and even that is intuitive, not analytical. If you want to expound on the artistic truths of religion, you might be getting somewhere. That is the proper field of play.

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  4. Darrell says:

    Burk,

    “What seems question begging to you is doubtless just a challenge to your definition of terms and the terms of debate. As if you could just redefine the meaning of truth and then everyone else who differs is begging the question of your lofty new innovation.”

    No, you don’t understand. You prove so in this very response. The question of whether or not I am redefining “the” meaning of truth (i.e. “your” meaning) is the very thing disputed.

    Your original response (well, most your responses) are replete with this type of logical error. I’m just wondering if it’s a rhetorical device or if you just don’t know you are doing it. I think you just answered my question.

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