Enlightened Epistemology

A lot is said, in the study of religion, that the Enlightenment greatly constricted the space that religion was allowed to occupy. The natural world now had natural explanations, and there was no need to make reference to the supernatural to explain things like disease or lightening or untimely death. God was, supposedly, taken out of the natural world and relegated to the “science” of theology alone.

What results, I think, is a theology that is more divorced from the everyday lived experience of human beings, since a growing cadre (and then veritable army) of “experts” are being deployed to explain all of that through an expanding armada of -ologies. There is, perhaps, a greater focus on the afterlife – after all, science doesn’t account for one at all, if there really is one, so theology can say whatever it wants about it. You end up with two divorced realms – the material realm with its immutable, comprehensible governing laws which can be expressed as equations, and the heavenly realm, where theological imagination and conjecture can essentially run wild with what’s there and how it works and who gets to go to the Good Place or the Bad Place.

But I was thinking about why we want to control things, and remembering some readings in Parker Palmer’s To Know As We Are Known. He makes the case (successfully, I think) that modern human beings want to “know” so that they can exercise control. At the very least, the message in education is that you learn things so you can get a good job later, which gives you money, and therefore power, and so on. But our epistemology is one of control, one of power over our surroundings, be they people or the material world or the economy, as well as control over ourselves.

It occurred to me that maybe the Enlightenment didn’t take away something that was of value in the first place. It removed God from the realm of explainer-of-natural-phenomina, but we probably only wanted them explained so we could control them. I want to say God causes disease so that I can be a more pious person and avoid disease. The Church wants me to believe that God causes disease so that I will be careful to follow dogmatic teachings, orthodoxies, creeds and whatnot in order to avoid getting sick.

And we really haven’t grown out of this phase at all. Most people, deep down, think that if someone is poor it is because they deserve it. Especially in America, in my experience. They should have looked for a job more, or worked harder in school, or they should be a better employee, or be more honest, or save more of their money. We have the fantasy that the only thing separating a poor person from a rich person is some good, ol’ fashioned elbow grease.

This belief is of course unmitigated crap. But if you’re not poor, it’s easy to hold the belief that you are more deserving, and if you are poor, life is pretty frustrationg, and it’s easy to fall into the belief that maybe you deserve it on some level.

To be honest (and to get back to my point, whatever it is), I think maybe the Enlightenment did people of faith a favor. Now, we have to deal not only with what is empirically true, but also what is meaningful, which is a more important question, and one that you can easily avoid when God is personally running the universe in every detail. We also can’t know God the way we know the rate of acceleration due to Earth’s gravity, for example. We have to really think about what we mean when we say we know God – why is it meaningful to know God? What kind of knowledge are we talking about? It makes us look at knowing God as something more akin to knowing a person – you can’t define them, because they’re a person, and they’re infinitely complex. No labels hold, no words encapsulate them. If these things are true of your boss or your mom or your spouse, how much more true are they when applied to God?

That’s why, a lot of times, I end up making fun of orthodoxy, and how seriously people take it, as if the words we use to describe God really even approached the truth about God. Even really important things like the Trinity – ok, its a great idea, and I can see where scripture and experience don’t necessarily contradict it, but when you treat it as definitive or, worse, self-evident, I think you’re really missing the point. At least, you’re missing what I think is the point. At best, the words we use to describe God are like words we use to talk about someone who isn’t there. “God is a Trinity” is sort of like “Frank is a young white guy who works as a janitor at the high school.” It gives you a useful picture of Frank, and you might even recognize him if you saw him, but you’re a long way from knowing Frank, or from Frank knowing you. That’s maybe the best use we have for theological language – to make it so that if you happen to meet God, you have a better chance of knowing who you’re dealing with. Or, maybe, to give you some hints about where you should go looking for God – like Frank, you might want to start where God works…

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