We have seen how words like God or love or beauty have no content until we give them a context. We need to attach at least one or two other metaphors to give the name an understandable meaning. We now turn to the logic that organizes the explanation given by a particular believer. We have to begin with particular believers because any world religion will include people who give a huge variety of different explanations for their faith.
It is often assumed that all religions are at heart the same. But as soon as we ask individuals what they mean by love vast differences quickly emerge. Here for example are a series of statements which all include the word love, but the resultant direction for living one's life is very different:
Each of the above statements about love could be developed into a logical structure with appropriate rules for living one's life. For our purposes in this book it will be convenient to use the word model as our name for a system of reasons for what we believe and what we should do about it. We can then see how our personal faith begins to crystallize into a logical model as soon as we are faced with the questions of others and especially of our children.
Children want to ask "why?" for every prescription we give them. Inevitably our answers, if they have any logical coherence, will develop into some kind of ideological or religious system. [See the appendix on Ideologies] Admittedly it is possible to be deeply religious without ever asking or answering logical questions. But if we accept a question from our children or ourselves, and attempt to answer it, we are inevitably involved in a logical system.
As we turn to examine a variety of ways in which religious questions can be answered, we need a method of describing this activity and comparing the alternatives which are offered. A simple method for doing this uses the three categories of goal, diagnosis, and means.
[This method was first used in an article by Robert Brow, "Religion: Comparatively Speaking," HIS Magazine published by IVCF, Downers Grove, Illinois, March 1973, pp. 12-14. It was also used in Clark H. Pinnock and Robert C. Brow, Unbounded Love, 1994, pp. 16-23]
The advantage of this method is that the same three point classification system will take care of political ideologies such as Marxism and Nazism, personal pursuits of happiness by those who claim no religion, and most forms of eastern and western religion which we will meet in our travels and among our friends. There are no doubt hundreds of other ways in which the explanations given by believers could be analysed, but this method is chosen for its usefulness in this chapter.
We imagine ourselves talking to someone who is obviously committed to some religion or ideology which we would like to understand. We begin by asking the question "If you succeed perfectly in your way of life what will you attain?" The person might say "I have never thought about such a question." But if an answer is attempted the hoped for goal might be in the form of some imagined utopia on earth or in heaven, or a personal state or experience. "I want a happy creative life in this world," "heaven in the world beyond," "a classless society in every country," "oneness with the world soul," "love and brotherhood among people." Obviously each of these goals is already loaded with a complex set of metaphors as suggested in the first chapter.
As we ask our first question about the supreme goal we could find someone who calls himself a Christian but he really has a Taoist or even a Marxist viewpoint on life. Our aim should be to discover the deep heart longing of each person, not the label that is given. Admittedly some people may have heart longings which they cannot express or explain logically, and we cannot blame them for that. We can only set out the system of thought of someone who wants to give reasons for his faith in an ordered kind of way.
In some cases an honest answer to our question about a supreme goal will be "I guess I haven't got a goal in life: I just drift along and do what I feel like at the moment." This kind of person is not religious for our purposes in this chapter. He has no goal or ultimate purpose in life. It might be possible to pick up patterns of behavior, but it would be impossible to construct a model with an internal logic for his life. On the other hand anyone who has an ultimate goal, however atheistic it may sound, can for our purposes be called a religious person. "I want to make as much money as I can" is not irreligious, but mammon worship," as Jesus said in Matthew 6:24.
Once a person's goal has been defined it should be easy to see, in the light of that goal or summum bonum, what the person thinks is wrong with humanity. Whatever prevents the attainment of the ultimate goal will be named "sin" or its equivalent in that believer's explanation. But we immediately find that the word sin has no definition until we give it a content in the light of a particular person's ultimate goal. For some Hindus sin is essentially ignorance. Among Muslims sin is disobedience to the laws of Allah, because failure to obey those laws makes the attainment of heaven impossible.
Karl Marx did not use the word sin, but for him the equivalent concept is the selfishness caused by class distinctions. In setting out a vision of what Marxism should be Erich Fromm changed the diagnosis in terms of class conflict to a metaphor of alienation. [See Erich Fromm, Marx's Concept of Man, New York: Frederick Ungar, 1966] This change in the metaphor used to picture the diagnosis has now changed the logic of the religious species. When we come to classification we might want to put Fromm's view of Marxism in the same general category as John Dewey's form of Humanism.
Since we cannot question Karl Marx or Erich Fromm we could be mistaken about their particular model of Marxism, and it is the task of historians to correct that if possible. With a particular believer whom we can question face to face we can ask about his or her diagnosis of our human condition. To avoid caricaturing we should let a person decide whether class conflict, or alienation, original sin, or any other metaphor, captures what prevents the attainment of his or her ultimate goal. And if we have missed the point, we should accept correction till the person agrees we have got it right.
Obviously there is a limit to how much subdivision of species is convenient for our purpose. We will for example differentiate eight metaphors for sin in our classification system. Those who want as many sub-species of religion as there are sub-species in a bird book could then subdivide further to their heart's content.
For the person who has no goal in life and merely does what seems good at the moment, sin is a meaningless term. Unless we were to believe in a capricious god who said "sin is what happens to displease me right now," we will find that sin is always defined metaphorically in relation to an ultimate good or goal.
With the person's goal in sight and the diagnosis of what prevents the attainment of that goal, we are then ready to ask, "How do you propose to move from our present condition to attain your goal?" Here are some answers that might be given: "by trying to obey God's laws"; "by a revolution to overthrow the existing system"; "by deep meditation through yoga to attain oneness with the absolute", "by engaging in the rituals that my priest or witch doctor prescribes." Again we note the different metaphors of law and obedience, system and revolution, oneness and absolute which are used to define what is in mind.
We should beware of assuming that the means or rituals or disciplines that a person is engaged in can tell us the goal he or she is pursuing. Yoga might be practised as a means of improving one's health. Transcendental meditation could be a method of clarifying one's mind in a life devoted to making money. A revolutionary overthrow of the present system is the prescribed means for Marxists and Anarchists, but also for Nationalists wanting their country's freedom, and even for Christians committed to one form of Liberation Theology.
Already it is evident that the answers to questions about a believer's goal, diagnosis, and way of salvation, will require words and the descriptive words will inevitably be metaphorical. In addition there is often a governing image which clarifies the relationship between the metaphors for sin, the way of salvation, and the goal. The early Marxists usually had class struggle as their governing image. For many Muslims a key picture is that of Allah holding up the scales of justice to weigh their good and bad deeds. But we should beware of assuming that for a particular Muslim this is the governing image. Sufi Muslims for example might prefer an image of oneness with God which comes much closer to that of Hindu Monists.
In Christian theology the fatherhood and family of God give us important metaphors, but as we will see these metaphors can function in very different ways. Feminists for example object to suggestions of fatherhood and patriarchy, and so they might offer feminine images, and even a mother God.
But now let us assume that we are talking to a believer who uses metaphors that picture God as more loving than the most wonderful of human parents. Such a picture will suggest that God sets up our environment and supervises the opportunities for our growth and learning. These metaphors also allow that God might exercise discipline and assign consequences for certain kinds of behaviour.
Such a believer would find it very hard to conceive of a loving God who really loves and enjoys us but then suddenly terminates the relationship with the death of our body. Theists therefore tend to use a range of metaphors to picture life after death and some form of resurrection. How this life is related to whatever comes after death, or beyond death, then has to be explained by the logic of the particular believer's model.
Now we come to a basic divide in how these generally agreed theistic metaphors are going to be structured. In one form of theism the metaphors are structured to suggest that God only loves or accepts those who obey his will. The will of God might be seen as a set of rules to be obeyed as in Pharisaism, or a ritual to be engaged in as Ritualism, or in some doctrines to be believed as in many sects. An extreme evangelical explanation is that all people are condemned to hell unless they exercise faith, and that is defined as hearing about Jesus Christ, repenting of one's sins, and accepting him as saviour.
On the other side of the divide are metaphors that take it for granted God has always loved all people of the world without exception and without condition. One variant of this is a form of Universalism where it is suggested that God loves us all so much that everyone will eventually end up in heaven. Another alternative, pictured in C.S. Lewis' Great Divorce, is that no one will be excluded from the love of God except those who finally and deliberately choose to prefer the darkness. Clearly a failure to capture the implications of the love of God in a particular theist's model will make it impossible for us to grasp what motivates his or her behaviour.
Finally we note that in model theology there is always a hierarchy of explanations. A person may need to use a set of scientific metaphors for professional purposes, and that is necessary for at least part of the day. Several times a month we need to shift into a model for making deposits at our bank, using cash machines, and transactions by telephone. Other models may be used for family and social life. "This is the way we celebrate Christmas in our family."
But when it comes to the ultimate questions of life, and especially what is worth dying for, we need a set of religious or ideological metaphors. And we have seen how each individual is likely to structure them in a model when he or she is asked for an explanation.
At this point we are still on the sidelines suspending judgment. Engaged in a strictly logical exercise we need to make no commitment. All we have shown is that the answer to any questions about one's goal, or diagnosis of the human condition, or means of salvation, is bound to involve the use of metaphor and our metaphors will need a logical model if we want to explain what we believe.
We now try out our three point method for analysing the explanations given by some particular believers. We begin with a friend who calls himself an Original Buddhist (as opposed to a Zen or Mahayana Buddhist). Whether or not the way he is following was the original way as taught by Buddha (c.563-483) is irrelevant for our purposes. All we want to discover is the way he is following regardless of how and when such a way was followed by others.
So we listen carefully to our friend who says something like this: "All the miseries of life are because we desire things. If you look back at your unhappiness in the past few weeks, you will find that it was caused by wanting this and that and being frustrated at not getting what you want. If only you could lose all your desires you would be happy. The state of losing all desire is Nirvana or heaven. To lose all desire is no easy matter, but there is a course of ascetic discipline taught in our monasteries through which you can eventually attain Nirvana."
We might disagree with the first premise, but our aim is not to argue. We only want to understand the explanation he wants to give. this explanation has a logical form. To clarify the logical structure of our friend's religion we work at our three basic questions. What is the goal, the diagnosis, and the means of attaining the goal. In each case we should note carefully the metaphors and governing images that seem important to him? In our attempt to understand we avoid looking for debating points. We refuse to caricature. Like a botanist we attempt to classify his exotic species of religious explanation with sympathy and exactness.
We might begin with this kind of basic model structure:
|Goal||Loss of all desire (Nirvana)|
|Diagnosis||Desire is the root of all misery (sin)|
|Means||Ascetic discipline in a monastery (Here the governing image seems to be the metaphor of eradication - desires are weeds to be pulled up by the roots)|
|Name||Original Buddhism (?)|
Having set out this tentative model, we ask our friend to check and correct it as needed. He might for example want to change "ascetic discipline" to mental or spiritual or ritual discipline. In trying to understand another person's religion or ideology we should never be satisfied until the person agrees that the details of the model we have constructed picture his or her explanation correctly. When our model is successful he or she should be able to say "Yes, you have understood the logical principles of my religion exactly."
Our Buddhist friend wanted to add "but you won't feel what we think till you come and join us." It is important to admit that our little exercise in understanding the logic of his explanation totally fails to capture the richness of his religion. When a bird watcher classifies a common crow as Corvus Brachyrhynchos she has set it apart from the other species of crows and ravens. The logic of her conclusion is based on the bone shape and plumage of the bird. She could prove her case by dissecting the carcass, and showing how it differs from other birds. But of course she knows perfectly well that the identification of the species cannot capture the hunting, migrating, mating, and nesting instincts of crows in general, much less the complex social life of that particular bird.
Clearly our strictly logical classification of the explanation given by a particular believer misses huge areas of great importance to followers of that kind of religion. And we remind ourselves that even if the explanatory model for our particular Buddhist was correct, we should not assume that others who call themselves Buddhists would explain their faith using a similar pattern.
By way of illustrating our method we try out three more examples. If a friend was engaging in deep meditation, and we asked her to explain her faith, the model might be:
|Goal||Oneness with the Absolute (governing image of a drop of water going back into the ocean)|
|Diagnosis||Maya or bondage to the delusion of this world|
|Means||Yoga and meditation to free the mind|
The explanation of another devotee might be analysed as follows:
|Goal||Heaven as opposed to hell|
|Diagnosis||Disobedience to God's commands (resulting in condemnation - governing image of God holding up the scales of justice)|
|Means||Submission to God's laws|
Or we might identify:
|Goal||Utopia on earth|
|Diagnosis||Greed due to private ownership of property (Governing image of class struggle)|
|Means||Revolution followed by rule of the people|
Often an individual will explain that he or she has been converted. We should assume that the conversion is from one way of looking to another. As Jesus suggested in a powerful metaphor, "The eye is the lamp of the body. So if your eye is healthy, your whole body will be full of light." Here the seeing eye is used as a metaphor for spiritual perception, or the way we see things. Conversion occurs when we see the reality around us and our relationship to that reality in a new way. [Matthew 6:22. It is interesting that in the Indo-European languages the words for seeing and knowing were originally closely connected by metaphor, as with oida in Greek, video in Latin, vid and Vedas in Sanskrit. And we play with the same metaphors when we say "I see, said the blind man."
Psychologists will explain to us all the tangled reasons for conversion - brainwashing, social pressure, financial concerns, the attempt to rebel against parents, various forms of repression, etc. Those may all be important, but they do not concern us in our attempt to understand the pattern of a particular believer's explanation. We are not engaged in discovering the previous causes of a person's present commitment. All we are doing is trying to understand the logical structure of the explanation that is given for a particular life style.
In some cases a person's heart may be looking in a new direction, but the old pattern of explanation continues. Teachers of religion usually assume that it is their task to drill their followers in the "proper" logic of explanation. It was probably imparted to them from a textbook which was meant to be evangelical as opposed to liberal, defending a form of fundamentalism as opposed to modernism, or Zen Buddhism as opposed to Mahayana Buddhism. The result is that individuals will often mouth the logic of what they have been told to believe when their heart is really pointing in a quite different direction. But for our purposes in analyzing a particular believer's explanation we are not asking how or why that kind of logic was adopted or whether it in any way corresponds to what is in his or her heart. And happily we can be sure that if there is a God who loves and cares he will know the person's heart not the mouthing of the approved catechism.
Christians should also remind themselves that Jesus never taught a system of logical explanation. Instead he used many metaphors and told parables which are extended metaphors. And he warned against the explanations of religious tradition. "For the sake of your tradition, you make void the word of God" (Matthew 15:6) Why then are we bothering with this long analysis of the logical structure of a believer's religious explanation?
If a person had no set pattern of logical explanation in mind, he would be free to work with other metaphors and other ways of structuring them. But we have seen how in answering the questions of our children we inevitably develop a pattern of explanation. Patterns of explanation are also drummed into us by our scientific and religious teachers. The result is that someone can be bound by a particular logical structure without knowing it. He needs to be freed to think creatively.
When we understand how metaphor works, and how metaphors become ossified in a particular logic of religious explanation, we may be able to free ourselves to think in other ways. In any case we need this kind of objective analysis if we are going to engage in useful dialogue with those who have adopted a pattern of explanation different from ours. [Zen Buddhist teachers use many techniques to destroy an individual's existing patterns of logical explanation. My concern is that in some cases the very process of metaphor creation and genuine faith might also be destroyed. Some have ended up as zombies. Our aim should be gently to open up the mind to new possibilities, and that seems to have been the purpose of Jesus' parabolic method.]
In some cases the models of believers both before and after conversion can be guessed by reading their books. Other models may be derived with much greater uncertainty from historical accounts of what founding members of their ideology believed, and from books of theology or comparative religion. Since our interest is primarily in illustrating how metaphors can be arranged in different logical patterns, our method can be useful regardless of the source of information. But for the purpose of understanding honestly what a particular person believes there is no substitute for friendship and leisurely conversation. The ideal is always to let people speak for themselves and allow them to correct our analysis to their total satisfaction.
As we continue engaging with more and more people of different religions and ideologies we naturally record and collect the various patterns of explanation which have been given. Eventually we might want to relate these patterns to one another in some kind of order or classification. That is our agenda for the next chapter.