The Need for Nous-Religion - A Thesis

I am currently working on my thesis that the popular understanding of religion needs to be expanded because the current definition is too narrow to be able to include what we have learned about ourselves and our cosmos. The current understanding of religion being only about behavior and concepts dealing with the supernatural prohibits more sophisticated understanding of the subject. I am publishing my working draft here as a sketch of a work in progress, in the hope that it may be of interest to others and provide for a better understanding of what I am about theologically. It also serves to document the originality of my work.

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While there is very little scholarly agreement on a definition of religion, for the purpose of discussion and mutual understanding, I define it as a universal human social behavior, through which people gather and work together to sacralize the values and symbols they hold in common.  Religion is the principal means by which human communities and cultures make sense of their lives and through which they inculcate, build and share meaning.

Religion is a socially shared spirituality. I define spirituality as an individual's socially constructed cognitive and emotional response to the existential question, "Why do I exist?" This question is a phenomenon of being self-conscious. We all respond to the question in our own unique way as informed by genetics, familial and cultural environment, personal experience, education, and a multitude of other factors. In essence, our spirituality is a description of how each of us makes sense of the ongoing experience of being alive in the world as we perceive it.

Religious activity began at the very start of the emergence of our self-consciousness, in close association with the development of language and human culture.  As it still does, religion reflected the way we humans sought to understand the world around us and our relationship to it. In the beginning, our understanding was very limited. We had only simple language, no writing to record what we learned, and little in the way of collective information to help us understand our experience. Our reactions to what we experienced were more emotional than cognitive. At that point, it was natural for us to perceive almost everything that happened as magical because the nature of almost everything was unknown to us and we had only a nascent understanding of causality.

A primary characteristic of religion is its ability to provide human life with some form of benefit. This is particularly clear in the case of our early human ancestors who found themselves living in an unpredictable and often dangerous environment. They sought control over the mysterious forces to which they were subject everywhere and at all times of their lives. Perhaps instinctively, they recognized the importance of maintaining close social bonds with their immediate and extended family because it was much easier to deal with life as a group than to try and do it on one's own.

It is understandable that when these early people tried to comprehend what was going on around them they attributed the cause for their experience to powerful magical others like themselves that they could not see. They sought communication with these others in the hope of influencing them and mitigating their actions. These attempts to communicate through sounds and gestures became ritual. The use of ritual produced a sense of the sacred.  Some members of the clan became recognized for their skill in dealing with these powerful others and they too gained a sacred aura. Each clan developed their own religious beliefs, the rituals that expressed them, and the shamans who interpreted them through ritual, visions and the telling of sacred stories.

For our earliest ancestors, the world of things seen and things unseen was one world. The visible and the invisible were intertwined with, and inseparable from each other. The dual worlds of the physical and the spiritual, of the natural and the supernatural, did not yet exist in the human mind.

A marvelous and powerful synthesis began to develop and evolve. Religious behavior provided these early people with meaning. Meaning created a welcome environment for the development of language. The development of language encouraged cultural growth. Cultural growth led to the uniting of clans and the integrating of religion, the deepening of meaning and more advanced use of language and the sharing of ideas.

In evolutionary terms, cultures suddenly and rapidly produced civilizations that in turn produced ever more sophisticated religions, technology, wealth, intellectual accomplishments, arts, etc. While there were great differences between cultures in terms of language, religion, art and other expressions, they were subject to the same evolutionary process and held supernatural cosmologies based upon their religions.

This basic structure held solid until the 6th Century BCE when thinkers in Greece caused a tiny crack to appear in the foundation of reality. Represented by Thales of Miletus, these thinkers questioned the accepted fact that all truth is revealed to us from the divine gods. They dared to use the human power of investigative rationality to test the truths of and about the gods. This little crack grew slowly and steadily as rational thinking and methods evolved in various cultures.

About 1000 CE, the great Islamic thinker Ibn Al-Haytham developed what is possibly the earliest form of the modern scientific method. Some 500 years later, during the period we call the Enlightenment, the irrationality and lack of empirical evidence for supernatural cosmology became too clear for many scholars to ignore, and they began to assemble a new and increasingly rational understanding of the cosmos.

Over the centuries these two methods of understanding have separated into incompatible and separate cosmologies, although it is still common for people to unconsciously and irrationally mingle them. Historically, to be religious is to be one who has bound h/herself to a belief through vows of commitment. A belief can be supernatural for some people and completely natural for others. Today, the idea of truth sourced in powers and stories from beyond nature is dissonant with the scientific cosmological understandings that human reasoning and scientific investigation have discovered.  Although many people still find much comfort in believing in supernatural powers and the ancient stories and traditions, those who embrace the cosmology of modern science find it increasingly difficult to make sense and meaning from them.

We theologians have a large body of knowledge and experience concerning meaning. Theology deals with how human beings inculcate, share and maintain the meaning of human life, community and culture that is essential for our survival. Unfortunately, because we have been reluctant to deal with the difference between meaning itself and the symbols and myths that contain and convey it, we have remained theologically trapped in the prescientific cosmology of the supernatural. The result is that we theologians are finding ourselves excluded from much of the scholarly, intellectual and scientific discourse that is rationally working to understand who and what we are, and the nature of the cosmos in which we find ourselves.

It is my thesis that theology has a valid and vital contribution to make to the on-going search for the truth about ourselves, our understanding of our cosmos, and the meaning we draw from them. But to be a part of that conversation, I contend we theologians need to extend the definition of religion so as to be understood as a culturally universal behavior that is not confined to the realm of supernatural beliefs. We need to understand religion as being about meaning rather than gods. Meaning can be supernatural for some people and completely natural for others.  Theologians must acknowledge that theos is a human ideation produced by our vital search for essential and transcendent meaning, and subject to critical thought and evaluation.  We must rise to a perspective transcendent to the gods we have chosen and served. We must free ourselves from irrational supernatural thinking and reconceptualize ourselves as grounded in the nature of evolving contemporary cosmology. We must take on the daunting task of re-mythologizing our knowledge and get to work developing rich new symbols, narratives and liturgies in order to be able to facilitate making durable meaning in systematic harmony with the contemporary scientific worldview. I call this enlarged and more systematic activity of meaning-making, "nous-religion".

WHP

A Biology Teacher Ponders Death

On April 14, 2016, my friend Tony Krzysik suddenly died. Tony was a scientist and one of those larger-than-life characters who had a range of interests as wide as the river of life itself. He was a retired professor who had taught college chemistry, biology and physics among other things (his Ph.D. was in Bio-Ecology). Tony was a gourmet cook, lover of reptiles, fly fisherman, Audubon naturalist, car nut, Steelers fan, and something of a Mr. Rogers to the kids who found their way to the Highlands Center for Natural History in Prescott, Arizona. He could, and did, do everything.

My friendship with Tony was based upon our common interest in trying to raise awareness about the destructive effects of human activity on the global environment. We shared the sad view that the collapse of those systems which support much of life on this planet is immanent if we do not make rapid and radical changes in human life and culture now.

Shortly after his death, Tony's body was cremated and a Celebration of Life was held for him in the amphitheater of the Highlands Center on April 24, 2016.

The following is a reflection shared at the Celebration by Thomas Atkins, who knew Tony professionally and personally for many years. Tom describes himself as a "retired bio teacher". He might be a descriptive minimalist.

I was deeply moved by Tom's reflection because it managed to say something central to my theology. I believe it demonstrates better than anything I have found, that factual, even scientific narrative can be as much the basis for profound meaning as the greatest myths or stories of supernatural powers and heroes, depending upon how it is presented. It is the surprising product of the simple chemistry of combining truth with love.

I share Tom's words here in honor of the extraordinary life of Anthony J. Krzysik and in the hope that you will experience something extraordinary in this bio teacher's courageously honest reflection:


I had to ponder this as a biologist…  What exactly HAPPENED to my friend Tony?

Biologically, what is the end of life?

TO UNDERSTAND DEATH, ONE HAS TO UNDERSTAND LIFE!

Life is funded by utilizing food to produce trillions upon trillions of protonsnaked hydrogen nuclei… each second!

These protons are produced… dammed up… and pass through an enzyme called ATP synthase.
They are tiny Nano motors which reconstruct ATP... Adenosine tri phosphate!

Thousands of ATP synthase molecules are found SPINNING AT 7000 RPM IN EVERY LIVING CELL WITHIN OUR BODIES.  


Tony’s marvelous Nano motors, living within his 60 trillion cells, worked tirelessly for 73 years +9 months.  

They made their final production delivery of ATP molecules shortly after his fall to the living room floor.

Without oxygen, these Nano motors slowthen come to a stop.

ATP, the energy molecule of the cell, can no longer be constructed.

The complex biochemical reactions in each cell that depend on ATP slowly ebb and cease as the last remaining stores of this ubiquitous molecule of cellular respiration are deconstructed for the last time…

∆H=Ø

BIOLOGICAL LIFE, THE CONSTANT BATTLE AGAINST RANDOMNESS, AGAINST ENTROPY, is finally at an end in our Tony, our dear friend.

It is not the end of his memes.

People we most love, do literally, become a physical part of us.  They are integrated within our brain structure, in the pathways where memories are created and stored!  

His intellectual essence lives in us all; it lives on in the minds of people that have had contact with this man’s remarkable intelligence.  

His memes live on in papers written late at night.  

They reside in scientific journals.  

They reside in the Internet’s electronic cloud.  

All these have changed the future in ways yet unknown.

 

It is not the end of his matter.  

The Earth Mother, warmed and powered by the sun, is infinitely patient.  But always in the end… FOR ALL OF US… this mother of our matter quietly and gently re-collects her elements.  

Tony’s matter, his stardust, IN THIS LAST WEEK, has already lifted into the sky!

Upon their RELEASE… these tiny elements… these molecules… were IMMEDIATELY swept away by the wind and PHOTOSYNTHESIZED INTO THE BODIES of the mother’s PLANT LIFE!  

It is Tony’s GATEWAY into the GREAT CYCLE!

Tony’s stardust currently… literally… is residing in THE MOTHER'S FAVORITE PLACES … her vast oceans… her great forests… her grasslands… her endless deserts!  
 

They also reside in TONY'S FAVORITE PLACE, a quiet pond filled with waiting trout. 
 

The Earth mother needs Tony’s universal Stardust for HER body for HER SOMA to use againand again… and again… and again… and again…  …and again……


Thank you Tony for having become an important part of my environment and my brain.  I miss you!

Tom

I Believe in Magic (In a Way)

One of my personal and professional life goals is to broaden the definition of theology.

Thanks in large part to my seminary mentor, Urban T. Holmes, III, I have always preferred to approach theology experientially and existentially rather than classically and dogmatically. The former begins with human questions. The latter begins with divine answers.

From its earliest times, theology has been identified with supernatural beings. It is completely understandable that once our species evolved self-consciousness, we sought to know where we were, how we got here, and our purpose for being here. We also desperately sought protection from the mysterious and fearsome forces of nature that surrounded us.  It follows that we believed that everything was under the control of spirit entities that were super-versions of ourselves. Whatever particular form individual cultures gave to these entities, their existence was an assumption. Theology began when some people began to try to understand and speak for them. I could say that these were the first clergy. But in a world that was totally magical, it is not a stretch to say that they were the first magicians. Theology began as the study of magic.

Magic is one of those elusive words. It can mean all sorts of things. It can be used to describe a sublime moment like a first kiss. It can refer to an experience of something that seems to have no rational causative explanation. It can be your uncle Joe who loves to make quarters appear from behind kid’s ears, or a grand televised illusion by David Copperfield. When I think of magic, I think of two of my favorite theologians, Penn and Teller.

I love those guys.  And yes, I very much consider them to be theologians. As I pointed out, theology began as the study of magic, and as I see it, despite all the science and academic sophistication it has acquired over the millennia since that beginning, it still is. People still seek it and others still provide it. The only difference lies in the fact that we now know how it works.

Penn and Teller know how it works.  And like all those who preceded them in the craft, they have made a very good living by giving us what we crave: a moment when causes and effects no longer apply and the impossible happens. How we crave that one precious moment when consequences don’t occur, responsibility is suspended and dreams come true despite all our failures and omissions.

Magicians refer to what they do as “illusions”. Most, like David Copperfield, do their magic and leave you in the ambiguity of the moment.  Did that happen? It seems impossible, and yet…?  They leave the delicious possibility of the impossible lingering on the hungry tongue.

Not so Penn and Teller. They perform some of the most complex illusions imaginable, but they always reveal how it was done. They understand that there is such a thing as magic, but it is a function of the human mind and perception, not a feature of cosmological reality. They want you to experience the beauty of the illusion, but they also want you to celebrate the self-knowledge that comes with knowing how it works.  They are theologians in the best traditions of the discipline.

Poetry, art, music, love, justice, freedom, (and lots of other magical things) are all illusions that we need and that we create. They are magical things that happen because we make them happen.

If our species is to continue on this planet, we must take responsibility for our religions: Patriotism, Nationalism, Capitalism, Militarism, Football and all Sportism, Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, etc. etc.  They are not magic. They do not come from the gods.  They (and the gods we worship) are our creation… illusions we have made.  They are our own reflection.

It is time for us to embrace this fact and with full critical intentionality create illusions that will move us to bring about the best of all possible conditions for all of life on the planet… and the planet itself.

We have to mature quickly and get to work designing these masterful illusions now, if history is to continue.

If we pull it off, it will be the greatest magic trick ever. If we don't, we will all disappear as if by magic. 

Everything matters.

WHP

 

Just Say'n...

Recently, I have been engaging with organizations that espouse a scientific and non-supernatural world-view. In the process, I have been reminded of how the terms we use when expressing ourselves can reveal the way we perceive reality.

I am a scientific thinker. That means that I accept that all we can reliably know about the cosmos in which is live is through the information we receive through sensory experience. In addition, this information must be cross identified and critically processed by others in a disciplined way that strives to eliminate subjective bias.

I do not accept the existence of a supernatural dimension in our cosmos simply because there is not one shred of empirical evidence in support of it. For the same reason I do not accept astrology, reincarnation, ghosts, magic, miracles, consciousness beyond death, or anything of the kind. I do not believe there is a God or even a mysterious designer behind the universe because the proven process of the evolution of life could not have happened as we know it happened, had a designer been involved in it.

It’s not that I am opposed to these common subjectively held ideas; I am not. I once held them myself.  I just do not see any empirical evidence in the cosmos to support them. I welcome the possibility of being given evidence of the supernatural and proven wrong.

Because I think this way, and after reading the Humanist Manifesto, one of the groups with which I have chosen to associate is the American Humanist Association. I find myself very comfortable with them.  However, and to my surprise, some of them are not very comfortable with me.

The problem is atheism.

If you read the third paragraph of this article, you have what most people would probably say is the very definition of atheism. But I am a theologian and I categorically deny being an atheist. That would be like a geologist denying the existence of rocks, or a biologist denying that there is anything called life.

I am of course aware that historically there has been a close identification of theos with God. We are creatures who are conscious of our own being. As a result, we are psychologically bedeviled by the need to know our purpose; the meaning of our existence. It is so strong a need that human beings do not thrive without it. Theos is whatever meaning or purpose we find in response to that need.

It is clear to me that our ancestors came up with gods early on in our cultural evolution as an explanation for why things are as they are, happen as they do, and why they were here. It was a perfectly reasonable idea given what little they actually knew about themselves and the cosmos at that time and for a very long while after.  

However, despite the long history of our thinking that theos was one or another brand of god, it doesn’t mean that we have to remain loyal to that understanding despite having learned otherwise.

It is becoming ever clearer that the supernatural in all forms and the denizens that populate it were and are creations of the human mind in response to the existential question. We created the gods out of our need for theos. Now we are gaining ever more factual understanding of the cosmos and ourselves. In the process, we are moving away from the gods and magical thinking. But theos (purpose and meaning sustaining existence) remains an essential human need. We are responsible for responding to that need with all the intellectual, emotional and creative resources we can assemble. Everything depends upon our doing it well.

I do not believe in God, gods, the supernatural or any entities that inhabit it.

I am a scientific theologian who accepts the cosmos as it is currently understood by science. At the same time, I rationally understand and identify myself as a theist. There is no contradiction in these stances.

If some people feel the need to find their meaning by being against rather than for something, I beg them to find something other than "theist" to be “A”.   

WHP

Theology As Art

In the past year, I discovered the work of the late Leonard Shlain who introduced me to the connection between art and physics. Shalin documented how artists had, in their work, presaged all the major cognitive shifts that occurred as a result of the work of scientists. 

Apparently, this idea has been quietly growing in my mind because in the past few days I have been enjoying something of a paradigm shift in the way I understand the work of theology.  Most of my theological work has been an effort to try to make clear statements about theological ideas and then test them against the fund of human knowledge and experience. This process has its merits, but it almost inevitably leads to deciding what is correct on a right/wrong, black/white, or true/false axis. Meaning, which is the subject of theology, is almost never reducible to such absolute categories.  

I have suddenly become aware that doing theology is much more like painting. Artists begin a painting with a vision; an image of something in their mind. It may be entirely imaginative, or it may be something that they see in the world about them. In either case, it translates to a mental image and it is this that the artist then labors to recreate on the canvas. 

There is no true or false in the effort to express the image in the mind on the surface of the canvas. There is no right or wrong color. There is only the artist's struggle to use whatever colors, textures, brush strokes, and whatever else can be called into play to translate what she "sees" in her mind into the terms of paint and canvas in the hope that the viewer will "get it". 

Opthe is a vision within my mind that gives meaning to everything I think and do. I now see that my task is not so much to share the critical thinking that I am certain is vital to holding meaning that is healthy and enduring. What I really need to be doing is working to become a theological artist. I want to do what I can to create representations of the power and beauty of what I see in such a way that others can engage it... and maybe even "get it".  

It feels like it's the right thing to do.

WHP

 

Living Opthēologically...

It has been some time since I have posted any writing and this may have created the appearance that nothing is going on with Opthē.  In fact, the past couple of months have been a period of great spiritual growth for me.

I have been using this site for my spiritual praxis several times daily and, in the process, made any number of ongoing changes to the focus form. The discipline of using the form has continued to serve to increase and deepen the meaning Opthē holds for me. In fact, I can say without reservation that Opthē has become more meaningful for me than anything I have ever previously experienced. It has significantly altered my reality.

As always, I have been moved to try and understand my own experience. Because the praxis of Opthē has generated such powerful meaning for me, I have been working to get a better handle on the nature of meaning itself. This effort has resulted in some interesting and useful ideas that I will soon share in this space and in the Colloquy.

Because healthy spiritual discipline is by nature therapeutic both psychologically and socially, I have become interested in the incorporation of the art and science of suggestion in the praxis of Opthē to help intentionally induce the attitudes and mind sets that help produce meaningfulness and our sense of reality. I will also be sharing what I find in this line of investigation.

So please know that this site is very much alive despite how it may sometimes appear. 

WHP

Je Suis Le Reptile

Unless life is predetermined, everything that happens in our world is the result of a complex mix of occurrences that are of both human and natural origin. Some of these events are intentional and others are random. Some are rational and understandable, others are not. Most are a blend of both. 

Three gunmen, belonging to a radical Muslim group, enter the office of Charlie Hebdo Magazine in Paris and kill more than a dozen people working there. They feel they have a moral duty to take violent action because the publishers have acted with knowing and blatant disrespect for the symbols that give their lives meaning and enable them to draw breath. They vow that they will die as martyrs to what they believe. 

The French police soon have the killers contained. Dealing with a complex of moral concerns for the welfare of hostages, public safety, and the need to restore confidence and order, they act with disciplined violence to bring the situation to an end. 

A couple of days later, the streets of Paris are flooded with people holding signs saying "Je suis Charlie Hebdo". They are led by a formation of Western block leaders walking arm in arm in a demonstration of unity. 

Unity in what?  Clearly, it is at least partially a unity of victimhood. Everyone seems to be saying, "We are all Charlie Hebdo... we have all been attacked!... what gives meaning to our lives and enables us to draw our next breath has been knowingly and blatantly disrespected. We will not have it". 

What is not visible in the photos of all these people walking in righteous indignation is the blood dripping from their hands. In the name of the things they and their peoples hold dear and sacred, these leaders have, with what they believe to be great moral justification, done sophisticated military, political, and economic violence to peoples and nations all over the globe. Not just twelve, or even three thousand, but millions of people have died as a result of these self-justified actions. Some of them were the cultural and familial relatives of the Charlie Hebdo gunmen. 

What happened in Paris last week began in a swamp millions of years ago. The effects of it will continue to ripple through whatever time life has left on this planet.

The cosmos has no mind and there is no plan to evolution.  But a creative consciousness has appeared. There is a mind in our universe. It is our own. Can we accept responsibility for directing ourselves? Can we begin to break the cycle of violence?   

WHP

So Far, So Good...

That's the punch line to the old joke set up by asking what an optimist says after having fallen off the top of a sky scraper, notes he has plummeted about half the distance to the ground. 

I'm very optimistic about this new year.  After more than half of a century of trying to work out a spirituality that can provide human life with profound meaning and which is in harmony with what we know and experience of the cosmos in which we exist, I am satisfied that I have accomplished my objective. Now it is a matter of working out the details of the model and living it out in the most authentic way possible. The Opthe website is a key part of doing that.

On a more academic level, it has become something of a mission for me to do all I can to expand and broaden the common understanding of the discipline of theology. I do theology as a science in the same way that fields like psychology, sociology, and anthropology are sciences.

While meaning is as important to human survival as are air and water, meaning must be subject to the same rigorous rational examination and testing as any other area of human knowledge if it is to be able to withstand the stresses and crises that confront us in life.

In the middle ages, theology was considered the queen of sciences and I deem it to be so today. Whatever meaning we make of our existence, if it is be sound and durable, it must be built upon and tested against a solid understanding of all the other arts and sciences; the fund of human knowledge and experience. Its thinking must be done with the same intellectual rigor and discipline as physics and philosophy. Theological thinking cannot be limited to the definitions or doctrines of any particular brand of faith. Moreover, it cannot be excused from testing through appeals to magic or the supernatural. 

With the foregoing in mind, and as a part of Opthe, I am setting up a colloquy for innovative and systematic theological discussion. It's my hope that it will attract professional and amateur theologians who are willing to participate in the dialogue necessary to expand theology as a discipline. It is my view that this is critical for human survival because we live in a time when our spiritual models have failed and we have nothing to replace them. 

Today is the 70th New Year of my life... the first day of 2015. 

So far, so good. 

WHP

   

 

This Feels Like Home...

The fact that you are reading this means that I have finally managed to get this new site configured correctly enough that it is now fully live on the web. I'm very excited about it because it has a look and feel that I have been seeking to achieve for some time now. 

In the last year or so, my theological work has brought me to a place where I find myself having developed an intellectually and emotionally authentic spirituality that is more trustworthy and meaningful to me than anything I have ever known before. 

I am a monastic in the ancient meaning of the word, living my life in focus on a singular praxis of commitment to altruistically serving all of life and the earth. I am also a monastic in the modern sense in that my monastery is in the Arizona residence I share with Annie, Kyle, and our three cats, as well as in this electronic place that glows from the screen before me. This modern virtual monastery allows an imaginative expression far more creative than any stone structure and provides a landscape of communication practically without limit.

Opthe is the product of over half a century of disciplined theological study and experience. It is still growing and evolving because we are constantly gaining new bits of knowledge and experience that modify the information strings holding together the sense we make of life and the cosmos.

My intention is to share as much of myself and and my monastery (Optheum) as I can with those who pass by. If what you find here interests you in some way, please accept my invitation to stop and share a bit of your story.  Your company will be very welcome and you can stay and participate for as long as your interest and inclinations lead you. 

Happy first day of Winter.

WHP