Monday, May 20, 2013

How Do We Know the nature or even existence of Salvation?

  photo Christ20on20the20Cross20162720s-1.jpg

A reader asks:

How can anyone really know if or how salvation is possible (or even necessary) if, to quote a certain blogger, "God is beyond human understanding because God is transcendent." It seems to me like the concept of a need for salvation in the first place is man-made. Isn't it a huge leap to get from "It's rational to believe in God due to the universality of mystical experiences" to "All humans are sinners in need of salvation?"

  ....In answering this questoin we can catch a glimpse of a phenomenologically oriented theological method in action. The short answer is the concept of  "salvation" must have evolved out of the sense of the numinous. Of course its "man made" in the sense that it's a theological response to a felt and perceived need. Theology is the participation and study of a faith tradition. Classically it's defined as "faith seeking understanding," the modern definition makes it seem more like a social scinece, with participant-observer overtones. Rather than "man made" in the sense that it's constructed out of "whole cloth" so to speak, it's more like "human understanding" striving to comprehend something all people have always felt at a certain level. What follows is my theory of how theology evolves from the sense of the numinous which dawned upon our pre-human ancestors in the way that instinct dawns upon animals, and culminates in higher rational abstract though in time, as it becomes theology.

from Numinous to religious development


stone age "Venus" figure: 
Probably fertility fetish

....Skeptics see religion as a question about empirical proofs of the existence of one additional thing in reality, besides all the things we regularly see in the universe; God, as opposed to a universe with everything in it that is in the God universe, but minus God. In other words for them God is just another object tin the universe to prove through empirical means. To them belief in God is just adding another fact to the universe. Belief in God is much more than that. Belief in God is not adding a fact to the universe; it’s an understanding of our relation to the universe. Belief in God is about understanding our relation to the universe, and that relation is as contingent beings, creatures whose being is derived form the ground of being. When we make this realization there is no more doubt. To realize the nature of being is to realize not only the reality of God but also the reality of oneself as creature of God. Of course this can’t have the same kind of verification that scientific work has, if it did it wouldn’t be a take on the basic nature of reality. This does not mean there are no methods that help secure the certainty that is found in the heart of one who has made such a realization. It is hoped that understanding this will lead others to seek that realization.
            We can see and understand this method looking at the nature of religious evolution in the evolution of humanity. Of course history of religions and comparative religion are extremely complex, time and space do not permit me to do them justice here. In a thumbnail sketch we can see the roots of Tillich’s concept of God as being itself coming out of this evolutionary development. Anthropologists understand religion as developing as man evolved. No one invented religion, no one decided one day to make up some entity called a God. Religion existed before gods existed. The instinctive realization toward integration into being was part of our ancient ancestors, part of our pre-human heritage. It grew up with us and began to down on us in ways that could be consciously pondered and portrayed as we began to grasp symbolic representation and to think about death and to wonder about the things around us. Atheists still use the old ninetieth century structural functionalist explanation for the origins of religion; the need to explain the thunder, the need to explain rain, the need to manipulate a higher power to make the crops grow. This explanation isn’t really accepted now days because now we realize there’s something more to it all; the sense of he numinous. To those outside looking in religion seems to be about ceremonies and the need to manipulate powers to those involved in It the reality is quite different. As I’ve already said atheists don’t listen to religious people as to why they believe, they are more concerned with assigning the explanations that flatter their own view point. The realization of the sense of the numinous the idea that there is a special quality to being that can be found all around us, the sense of the holy is the preferred explanation for thinkers such as Huston Smith:

"It is the experience of the transcendent, including the human response to that experience, that creates faith, or more precisely the life of faith. [Huston] Smith seems to regard human beings as having a propensity for faith, so that one speaks of their faith as "innate." In his analysis, faith and transcendence are more accurate descriptions of the lives of religious human beings than conventional uses of the word, religion. The reason for this has to do with the distinction between participant and observer. This is a fundamental distinction for Smith, separating religious people (the participants) from the detached, so-called objective students of religious people (the observers). Smith's argument is that religious persons do not ordinarily have "a religion." The word, religion, comes into usage not as the participant's word but as the observer's word, one that focuses on observable doctrines, institutions, ceremonies, and other practices. By contrast, faith is about the nonobservable, life-shaping vision of transcendence held by a participant..."

Smith considers transcendence to be the one dimension common to all peoples of religious faith: "what they have in common lies not in the tradition that introduces them to transcendence, [not in their faith by which they personally respond, but] in that to which they respond, the transcendent itself..."[1]

            The issue of religious adaptation to culture is most interesting because it illustrates the plastic nature of religion, and highlights the fact that belief is not just adding a fact to the universe but is actually an orientation to one’s own place in being. First we see humanity beginning to understand about pictures and representation, and in that same era, or before it perhaps but certainly in that era we began burying out dead with plants and herbs that would help them either because we expected them to have some sort of afterlife in which these things could be used, or we began to feel that they symbolically suggested our wishes for them. In this general era, the “pre historic” the “stone age” humans began to sense the presence of spiritual forces and began burying their dead [2] with herbs and drawing their hands on cave walls, because these things offered some sense of connection with spiritual forces. Some of the flowers put in the graves did not grow in the area; all are used in folk medicine with healing prosperities, indicating they had significance for a belief system.[3] Humans had a belief in sprits long before they believed in gods. What they were actually doing in all of this was coming to understand not only that the world and how they already knew to live in it, but the idea of its enchantment. The skeptic can only see that they were wrong, stupid ancient man so wrong about the existence of this extra object no one can see; what really seems to have been going on was a discovery about himself, we are living in a world filled with spiritual forces, he began to feel this. After several thousand years of pondering such things finally began to conceptualize these forces are personal and can be named and thus came up with the concept of gods. This concept was rooted in the first inklings of an understanding about our own lives and what it means to live in the world, to be part of being.
            Religious belief is an adaptation to culture because it is filtered through the lens of the cultural construct in order to be understood and shared in communication. The skeptic imagines the origin of religion to have been such as his/her observation of modern religion goes, a set of people try to understand why water falls out of the sky every so often and so they make up a story about a big man up there who pours water out of his huge boot, or whatever. The evolutionary practices of religious people as conform to their cultures have aided and abided this idea as it has been foisted upon the public. When we look at the nature of religion in the ancient world, even earlier we don’t an outside observer we see a practitioner who may resort to drawing upon a reservoir of knowledge that he already posses to explain the world, but he/she already posses that knowledge because it’s part of his/her way of life. Religion was not segmented factions battling to see whose set of doctrines came to dominate, in the ancient world religion was not about theology it was even “religion” that word was not used, it was ‘obedience.’ As human began sharpening their concepts they used the king as a model to represent deity because the king was the most powerful person around. Yet human understanding about life was already grasping the concept of the spirit and one’s place in being well before this understanding was ever called “religious belief.” The idea of God who is worshipped and has followers who chose one God over another a latter development, just as priest craft was a latter development.[4]
            Rudolph Otto coined the term “sense of the numinous, in his work The Idea of The Holy in order to capture the mysterious essence of the quality of feeling that stands behind all religion. He used words like “dread” and mysterium Tremendum to get across these are not ordinary feelings; words failed him in being able to describe what exactly he was talking, but this is the essence of mystical or “peak” experience. These terms are used to indicate a feeling or a sense that is beyond the ordinary sense in which we use them. It is non-rational, not irrational. It’s not “crazy” but can’t be analyzed or pinned down and distilled in reason. [5] The sense of the numinous is related to mystical experience and stands at the origin of religion in human thinking; this is essentially why religion exists. It is not hard to understand that this is the feeling related to the mysteries of life, death and the great beyond that led our ancient nameless primordial ancestors to draw their hands on cave walls and bury their dead with flowers to think about the other world and the forced that enchanted the universe with a sense they could not comprehend. At the center of this feeling is the sense of which we read above, of which Smith and Ideonopolis speak, “transcendence itself.” This is a realization about their place in the world, their being and their relation to the rest of being. They did not try to dissect it or psychoanalyze it away, they lived it out. The way to recapture it and live it again is to open up to the sense of wonder in being and allows the sense of being to suggest the categories into which we focus our understanding. There are methodologies that will allow us to do this.

The Universal Nature of Religion

What all people have done, all cultures have developed in my guises is the same basic set of questions and the same basic set of answers, but they come out in different forms. All religions seek to comprehend, identify and name the "human problematic." That is to say, the problem at the heart of being human. Some frame it in terms of sin, some cultures frame it in terms of "imbalance with nature" some frame it in terms of "disobeying natural law" some frame it in other terms, rebirth, impurity, whatever. They are all saying "there's a problem in the nature of being human, it's creates an estrangement form our source, it disrupts what is supposed to be harmonious and meaningful in our existence. This is the problem or set of problems at the hart of being human. In the very preparative understanding it's bad luck, breaking taboo, in the sophisticated understanding, as in the theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, its self transcendence. Niebuhr pretty much sums up what all of them are saying, he does it through his understanding of St. Augustine. Because we are able to think and to remember the past and predict the future, we can understand what will happen if we don't pay the rent. That's self transcendence. We can go beyond our momentary self and understand based upon the past the problems of the future. That creates anxiety, we fear, so we steal (for example) to pay the rent.
....Thus, we become willing to do injustice to others in order to alleviate our anxiety. This creates a new anxiety, we don't like doing unjust things to others so we feel guilt. Guilt produces estrangement from our sense of source. We seek relief and we find it in terms of Ultimate transformation experience. We can't just bliss out and forget what we did because of the guilt. So we need to have guilt assuaged. Nothing assuages guilt like being forgiven. We seek mediation, we seek a way to mediate between the need for forgiveness and the transformational power that brings a sense of being forgiven. That mediation is where organized religion comes in. This is not  pretending anything, it's administering a sense of forgiveness. When that sense is real and the relief is really delivered the transformational power is unleashed and we have off scale happiness. This is the essence of what religion is about. All religions have it.
....I've mixed two things up here. I stand by the senerio but it's nto all Niebuhr.[6] The bit about sin and self transcendence is, the big about identifying human problematic and transformation resolving the problematic (that's the ultimate point of the mediation) is from Dr. Neil MacFarland of Perkins school of theology. [7] The development of modern theological method and the doctrinal details of any religious tradition are just the playing out through time and the diversification and evolutionary development of human understanding in relation to a religious tradition. The purpose of tradition is serve as a guide, so we know where people have been in the past and what the pitfalls to avoid are, and we and we can develop and sharpen our understand. In another way they are like vocabularies, because they enable one to enter the ancinet conversation and to understand what has been contributed to the conversation over time. People use them as means of exclusion but that is a cultural development and one that has not always been around. The Ancient Hebrews did not consign their enemies to hell (they didn't have a conception of hell) on the basis that "they are not us." That's actually a somewhat modern development and probably came out of the Greco-Roman disdain for the barbarian.
,,,,Now one might ask if this contradicts my understanding of Christianity? No not at all. See my article on Salvation and other faiths. As long as we believe that understanding can grow our modern understanding can be deeper than our ancestor's understanding. Of course I've said that God is beyond our understanding, that's true. We can know God, we just can't put into words what we know. We know through mystical union. We can make metaphors. As long as we remember not to literalize the metaphors we will be OK. After all the idea is to experience not to understand words on paper. It's not about control, it's about letting go of control.


[1]Thomas Idinopulos,.”What is Religion” Cross Currents, Volume 48, no. 3(Fall 1998). Also see online URL: visited 10/28/10
[2] Paul Pettitt,  “When Burial Begins,” British Archaeology, Issue 66 August 2002. See Web versoin URL:, visited 10/14/08. Pettitt is research fellow at Keble college, Oxford.
[3] Richard Leaky  and Roger Lewin. Origins. New York: E.P. Dutton. 1977
[4] Willfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion. New York: Macmillan, 1991, Originally published 1962. on line google books page 51, URL: visited 9/28/10
[5] Rudolf Otto, and John W. Harvey.The Idea of the Holy: An Inquiry into the Non-Rational factor in the Idea of the Divine, 1929. Kessinger Pulbisher’s rare prints, (John W. Harvey Trans)  2004 5-8 Online page number URL: visited 10/4/10, Originally published Oxford University Press 1926.
  [6]. Reinhold Niebuhr, Nature and Destiny of Man Vol. I.Westminster: John Knox Press 1991(the original publication was in the 40s).
[7] Class notes at Perkins

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