Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Some Thoughts From Keith Ward

A couple of days ago, I noted Rhys Morgan's mention of a book by Keith Ward. Yesterday, while browsing in a bookstore, I came across Professor Ward's The Case for Religion. I've been dipping into it a bit, and some of his discussions seem quite appropriate in light of current events. I know, I'm supposed to be reading and commenting on George Lakoff. I will. I promise. But my heart has been drawn in another direction the last few days.

I'll offer the dustcover's introduction;

Keith Ward was until recently Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Oxford; he is an Anglican priest, canon of Christ Church, and a Fellow of the British Academy. He is the author of many books and articles on philosophy and religion including the bestselling God: A Guide for the Perplexed (Oneworld, 2002). Professor Ward's work straddles the boundaries between science, religion and philosophy, while his career has addressed topics from materialism to medical ethics. His work in these fields is internationally respected, and he is today known as one of Britain's foremost philosopher-theologians.
As is my custom, I begin by browsing through a book before reading it from cover to cover. What initially caught my eye was the final section, Convergent Spirituality. In chapter twelve, entitled Indra's Net; The Spectrum of Truth, Professor Ward concludes his sketch of global religious history by returning to his division of that history into four main phases. The first phase, the "local", is a time when local rituals and myths were developed and passed on through oral tradition. The second phase he refers to as the canonical, in which "rationalization and moralization of ancient traditions" takes place. Such codification of the traditions shared common attributes; compassion, wisdom and fulfillment. This phase was not without its drawbacks, however;

Being products of imperial elites, they tended to be closely associated with imperial and elite cultures, and their claims to universal truth sometimes allowed the growth of intolerance and repression of competing views. The religious views tended to be expressed in sacred texts, which were given absolute authority, and the 'orthodox' were often sharply distinguished from the 'heretics', who were discriminated against in various ways.

In the modern world such forms of traditional orthodoxy are very strong. Christianity and Islam especially find themselves competing for universal acceptance by all people as a revealed, final, absolute truth...The paradox of this phase of religious life is that it teaches the submission of self to a reality of supreme moral value, and yet it tends to oppose and caricature views that differ from its own.
Even though this is supposedly an early phase of global religious history, my experience is that this paradox remains alive and well, with little hope of it being resolved in the near future. But perhaps every paradox need not be resolved? Perhaps this creates a type of necessary creative tension? What I witness is routinized oppression, but that may be a bias drawn from my particular cultural perspective, I suppose.

Having moved beyond oral tradition, the tension derived from sacred texts now emerges;

For some orthodox believers, scriptural texts will be interpreted as literally as possible, and moral rules will conform as closely as possible to those laid down in scripture. This will often lead to clashes with critical historical reflection, with much scientific knowledge and with any appeal to moral autonomy. There is not necessity for such clashes to lead to violence or intolerance, however, since even the most literalist views usually call for compassion and understanding as central elements of their way of life. Such literalism can be found in every religious tradition, and it is naturally allied with conservative social and political attitudes, insofar as conservatism also wishes to preserve past traditions with as little change as possible.

There will also, however, be non-literalist forms of orthodoxy. For them, too, it will be important to affirm the final and unrevisable authority of the scriptural texts. But they will have a feeling for the metaphorical or allegorical and esoteric meaning of the texts, and will therefore stress the necessity of interpretation and of the authority of the tradition, in discerning what the texts mean in differing circumstances...In the case of moral rules, attempts will be made to discern the underlying principles beneath particular moral rulings in very different contexts. In other words, there will be a place for developing knowledge and interpretation, though the text will retain a decisive normative status as a basis for interpretations. This stress on metaphor, interpretation context and developing perspective has always been implicit within major religious traditions.
A place for developing knowledge and interpretation among the "orthodox"? Imagine that. I wonder what predisposes one to be inclined towards the literalist or non-literalist persuasions within what is called the "orthodox" tradition? "...they will have a feeling for the metaphorical or allegorical and esoteric meaning of the texts..." Do I see Schliermacher on the horizon?

For that, we'll have to wait for another time. Coming up; some excerpts from Professor Ward's descriptions of the third phase of global religious history; the "critical phase", which moves beyond the understanding of orthodoxy as an unchanging norm. And, indeed, Schliermacher will make an appearance.

From there we'll visit the fourth and final phase of global religious life, an extension of the critical phase, the "global phase", in which all religions are consciously seen as one global phenomenon. This is actually the section I'm most anxious to talk about, but it seems more fitting to back up a bit before launching into it. In discussing this phase, Professor Ward offers one of the better critiques of John Hick that I have ever encountered. Although I have always found Hick's Evil and the God of Love to be one of the best approaches to theodicy in print, I struggled with his work on pluralism, the title of which escapes me at the moment. Primarily it was his rudimentary (or so it seemed to me) understanding of the Eastern traditions that seemed to bring into question the validity of some of his ideas. Keith Ward unfolds further difficulties with Hick's version of pluralism, while still affirming that which is of value. But that discussion is for another day.

Do you note anything relevant so far in regards to religious tensions we face today?


No comments:

Post a Comment