Sunday, September 9, 2012

Does Religion Need the Supernatural?

Does religion need the supernatural?  Is there a distinction between the transcendent and the supernatural?

Buddhism seems historically conflicted over this issue.

Some forms of Buddhism like Zen (Ch'an in China) consider themselves philosophies, not religions, and are largely indifferent to the question of the supernatural.

Zen Buddhist works of art, like the famous sand garden at the Ryoanji Temple in Kyoto, are hardly recognizable as religious art.

On the other hand, other forms of Buddhism have entire cosmologies swarming with deities and semi-deities.

A Heian Period mandala from Japan

The Buddhists haven't resolved this issue after 2500 years.

Does religion need what more militant atheists dismissively call "fairy tales?"  Does the word "spirit" mean basically spooks, invisible beings?  Some of the more conservative religious seem to depend on the existence of an entire invisible dimension of spiritual warfare between the forces of good and evil.  They dismiss exclusively material explanations of evil as superficial and inadequate, as though evil could be eradicated by improved education and better hygiene.
Or, does "spirit" designate something more philosophical, something at the heart of being?  Is mortality a boundary that circumscribes everything that is, or is it simply a horizon beyond which we cannot see from our present place in this life?  Or are the 19th century Positivists right and there is nothing beyond what we can see with our eyes and grasp with our conscious reason?  If that's true, then what of the imagination?  Would the 18th century philosophes be right in dismissing it as just a source of delusions and hocus pocus?  Or is imagination, as William Blake would insist, a faculty of perception?   

If the Positivists are right, is that really the end of religion?

A Baptist minister might say yes, a Zen master might say no.

What do you think?


Tristan Alexander said...

Buddha was an atideist, true Buddhism is a philosophy. The forms that have many dieties are older multi god religions that incorperated him into their panthions. It would be like ancient Rome decideing to make Jesus one of their Gods and sadding him to the long list they already had. They did that with several other Gods they encountered in other cultures so it wuld not have been weird to them.
But it seems all great teachers/spiritual leaders have their messages compleatly screwed up by those who claimn to follow them. Buddha was anti deity, taught that you could control your own fate and yet, as you point out, he is worshiped as a God by! Jesus taught that you should love everyone, live for today and not judge others and his followers do exactly the! Mohomed taught love and understanding of others and we see where his followers are right! It is a shame that as you said spirituality has not taken hold and made us better, instead re;igion has taken hold and made us worse!

Counterlight said...

Well Tristan's already worked up into a lather. Is there anyone else out there who has anything to say?

Jason Young said...

Who could resolve the discontent of all possible answers to the koan?

rick allen said...

Much depends on what one means by "nature". If it means "all that is," by definition, there is no supernatural.

I think the term "supernatural" arose in the Western Middle Ages as an expression of the distinctiveness of God from creation. The order of nature is good, but it came into being by something outside of it, or by something transcendental over it. God, in creation, made nature; God, in the incarnation, came into nature, and became subject to nature.

Many of the rationalist philosophies of the seventeenth century--I am thinking of those of Leibnitz and Spinoza--sought to re-conceptualize God to a place within the order of nature. They then arguably sought to remain "religious" while jettisoning the category of the supernatural.

For myself, I think of the natural as that which is in the realm of being discoverable and verifiable by the methods of the physical sciences. It is a huge field, but it is not the whole of reality. The supernatural includes not only God, but the soul, and the freedom of the will. Science can say much about forces, but not so much about right and wrong, or value, or love. Those are the realms which "nature," as the preserve of empirical science, cannot reach (much as many have striven to demonstrate that it can and has done so).

And, on a side point, we know so little about the historical Buddha that I think it's difficult to dogmatize about his beliefs about the gods. From what I know of him, and his teaching, he certainly didn't put them at the center of his message. But I don't know how much one can infer from that. There have now been numerous and strenuous efforts, especially here in the West, to posit Buddhism as a teaching wholly independent of supernatural content. I don't doubt that it can be done. But I do question whether, once done, what is left has much continutity with the historic Buddhism of the East. (But what I know of that is admittedly sketchy, at best.)

mike e said...

I believe that "spirit" or "soul" should be interpreted as the accidental self-consciousness that occurs when enough synaptic connections are formed in a brain that is already somewhat organized by a smaller number of hardwired instinctual pathways. I also think that when our machines become as complex as our brains (still a long way off) they will develop "souls" also. Finally, I believe every consciousness is unique and sacred, in a purely secular sense.

Counterlight said...

I removed my more peevish comments.

it's margaret said...

Yes. ...and No.

I don't know what else or how to describe, know, feel, name the connective tissue of the multi-universe...

Gerrit said...

'Or are the 19th century Positivists right and there is nothing beyond what we can see with our eyes and grasp with our conscious reason'

Did they really say that? I think their point was, that we cannot *talk* about that beyond in a meaningful way, cf. Wittgenstein's last line in the Tractatus Philosopicus: 'Wovon man nicht reden kann, soll mann schweigen': ( and now I'm trying in vain to translate that. In German and Dutch SCHWEIGEN is an active verb, something you DO; in English it is passive ) Do not talk about what cannot be defined within language,

And re religion without the trancendental: maybe Taoism is just that.

My 10c.

Tristan Alexander said...

Wow, and I thought I gave a calm, simple oppinion and yet I get a less than welcoming/positive reaction. Oh well.

rick allen said...

"And re religion without the trancendental: maybe Taoism is just that."

Again, I hesitate to got off on Eastern thought and religion, but yet, arguably, the term "tao" plays a role in Chinese thought roughly analogous to that of "nature" in Western.

The first line of the Tao Te Ching certainly suggests to me a notion of transcendence: The tao that is the tao is not the [genuine] tao. There is a tao beyond the tao. If we said that there was a nature beyond nature, what would we call it, using our Greco-Roman store of prefixes?

Ciss B said...

Doug, I think it's a personal thing. For me it's more in the Zen camp. I go to church for the emotional contacts I have there, for sure. But I have to say that the service also takes me out of myself unlike most sterile Baptist type services. The liturgy truly speaks to me.

And though people say Buddhism is a philosophy, but it seems to hold much more to those who seem to practice it. It gives something that a simple philosophy doesn't. It is more in the realm that I would call the supernatural, and like those who practice it I need that in my own personal spiritual life..

JCF said...

"If the Positivists are right, is that really the end of religion?"

If the Positivists are right, is that really the end of love? Do we just have reproductive drives (or the case of those of us who are gay, haywired reproductive drives)?

See re dear departed Hal David:

As sure as there's a heaven above, Alfie.

I believe there's Something Much More---

Something even non-believers can believe in...

I believe in Love, Alfie.

Without Love we just exist.

Until you find the Love you've missed, you're nothing,

When you walk let your heart lead the way
And you'll find Love anyday Tris--(I mean) Alfie.


OK, after that musical interlude...

"A foolish consistency is the hob-goblin of little minds" (is that Einstein?)

I reserve the right to believe in (i.e., TRUST) in a Supernatural Higher Power (Love, whom I address by the personal name "Jesus"). Just as much of the time, I don't think about the Supernatural much. Just the Philosophy of Jesus (active non-violence and compassion).

Counterlight said...

"I believe in the sun,
even when it is not shining.
I believe in love,
even when I don't feel it.
I believe in God,
even when there is silence."

Mary Clara said...

I can't say that the concept of the supernatural has much resonance for me. Rather, I think in terms of different ways of talking about and experiencing reality. Some dimensions of reality can be observed scientifically and determined to be factual or at least probable as empirical phenomena. Others are better studied, described and cultivated via imagination. Blake boldly spoke of "Jesus the Imagination". I can readily go there with him. Jesus opens rather than closes phenomena. Bible stories and works of art and music do this also; every time one returns to a favorite poem or Bible passage it offers up something new. Christ "redeems" ideas as well as souls by revealing their higher and deeper resonances.