Rod Dreher

Here’s a good interview with Sir John Polkinghorne, the Anglican priest and physicist, talking about virtue, science and religion. Excerpts:

I call myself a bottom-up thinker. I try to move from experience to understanding, to look at experiences, which may be our own experiences or accounts of others; in fact, in the religious case, they are very extensively accounts of experiences other people have had which we believe are being truly described to us and which support particular beliefs we are seeking to embrace. It means that we don’t just sit and dream things up out of our heads. It’s very important that we deliver ourselves from fantasy. You see, I think that the fundamental question about something, whether science or religion, is not, “Is it reasonable?” as if we know beforehand what is reasonable, or what shape rationality has. The better question is, “What makes you think that might be the case?” If you are going to propose something surprising and counterintuitive to me, then you need to produce evidence, something to persuade me that that might be the case, perhaps experiments. That is motivated belief. It contrasts with top-down thinking. Top-down thinkers have certain big ideas, clear and general ideas, which, if you grasp, they have the key to understanding everything. I think it’s the other way around. I think you should start at the bottom and the ideas will grow out of experience rather than being imposed upon it.


Do you think that the diversity of the world’s religions — I am referring especially to the non-Abrahamic religions — poses a challenge to religious belief?
Yes, I do. I think there are two great problems for religious people. First, there is the problem of evil and suffering. The second problem, which is really pressing at the moment, is the question of how the world’s faith traditions relate to each other. They are almost all thinking about the same domain of human experience. They have certain commonalities. All the world’s faith traditions commend compassion, for example. They are all operating in the same sort of area, but they have such different things to say about it. Just take the question of human nature. The three Abrahamic faiths — Judaism, Christianity, and Islam — see the human person as of unique and abiding significance. Our Hindu friends see the human person as being recycled through reincarnation. Our Buddhist friends think life is an illusion from which to seek release. These are not three sets of people saying the same thing in different cultural languages. They are three sets of people saying different things. I think that the dialogue among the world’s faith traditions is just beginning. I think it will be long and painful, but I don’t think the answer is to look for a lowest common denominator. When you do that you get a very anemic picture of religion.

That resonates with me, and is why I typically feel that I have more in common with orthodox believers of other religions than I do with Christians who think all religions are basically the same. This remark of Polkinghorne’s reminded me of a conversation I had the other day about religion journalism. I was telling my friends that I thought a big problem with the way the U.S. media cover religion is they don’t take doctrine seriously. Reporters — and I’m generalizing — tend to see religion as a therapeutic enterprise. That is, it’s there to make us feel better about our lives, and to overcome the divisions between people. Religion does have that aspect, but religion divides as much as it unites. For example, either Jesus Christ was God incarnate, or he was not — and a very great deal hangs on the truth or falsity of that proposition. It’s possible that both the Muslim and the Buddhist account of salvation are false, but it can’t be possible that they are both completely true. And so forth. Anyway, it’s my sense as a longtime observer than much religion journalism is built around an unconscious belief that religion is chiefly or wholly therapeutic, and the role of the journalist is both to look for ways to highlight therapeutic expressions of religion, and to police the religious world calling out religious believers who do not go along with the therapeutic model, and who insist on particularity — to identify them and tag them as “fundamentalist,” or some other crude term of opprobrium.
Put another way, I believe most journalists covering religion see faith as an expression of the individuals feelings about God and the world. By failing to take seriously the idea that religious traditions make truth claims about the world, reporters may miss an essential element in how the mind of the believer works.

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