Reflections on the Human Quest for Meaning

Transforming Theology Theoblogging Project

Continuing the project of blogging through Philip Clayton’s, Adventures in the Spirit – Chapter 15

Having started with the question of the viability of a conversation between science and theology, and whether it was worth the risk for theology to enter that conversation, we have been seeking answers to these questions from a variety of vantage points. We began with the scientific questions, and whether the idea of emergence within science gave some hope to our quest. From there, in part three we considered whether panentheism was a workable theological model for this engagement – and whether it provided a firm grounding for a Trinitarian formulation. We also explored the idea of kenosis, God’s self-emptying, and how that played with God’s relationship to the universe and how it related to our Christological questions. Then in the fourth part of the book, we moved on to the crux of the science-theology discussion – does God act? That is, does science, as we know it and practice it, allow for divine agency? Clayton, as we should know by now, answers in the affirmative, but continues to insist that panentheism is the most viable path to take to find the solution. Now, in part four we come to the issue of application – how might all of this connect with where we are living?

The first question that Philip Clayton takes up, in chapter 15, is the “human quest for meaning.” While much of the previous discussion has focused on answering the challenges of the natural sciences, in this chapter he takes up the challenges posed by the social sciences, for they wrestle with the question of meaning and purpose. Thus, in this chapter we focus on questions of theological anthropology, and the conversation partners include anthropology, psychology, and sociology.

There is, he recognizes, a “hierarchy of meaning,” which ranges from “the raw data from the world and other humans” – those basic experiences of life that we must wrestle with – and up to the highest level, which involves “Making sense of existence as a whole.” In between there are all manners of questions of individual perception and social formation in cultural and social contexts. The question is, where does religion fit? Is it socially constructed or does it construct society? Clayton writes that when we approach faith from the perspective of the social sciences religious people get a bit uncomfortable.

“We like to think of our religious beliefs as directly reflecting rational reflection on the world and self-revelation of God, rather than as the product of social construction. Many become uncomfortable to consider their religious beliefs as being the result of social factors.” (P. 234).

But, the evidence is that our faith is socially constructed. By and large we are the products of our context – by and large we share the religious beliefs and practices of our families. Indeed, while I may have left the denomination of my childhood, I remain both Christian and Protestant.

From a sociological perspective the focus is on the function of belief. Again, religious people are uncomfortable with functionalist understandings of religion. But if it plays no function, then religion has no purpose. And what is its purpose? Well, at one level faith, religion, theism, establishes meaning – “thereby to make the universe meaningful for believers” (pp. 236-237). The problem is that a functionalist perspective often presupposes social constructivism. And, it is believed if faith is socially constructed, then ultimately it lacks validity. That is, we create religion, and thus God, so as to give ourselves meaning and purpose, whether or not there is any truth to these beliefs. Thus, they must be false.

Clayton offers a telling response:

“Functionalist accounts do not demonstrate the falsity of (say) core Christian beliefs. Believing that God exists does not become a mistake merely because that belief functions to make one’s life meaningful. Belief in God is sometimes dismissed as mere ‘wish fulfillment’, as in Freud’s famous critique. But is the fulfillment of things we wish for always a matter of make-believe? The functionalist critique may support agnosticism, but it provides no evidence for the falseness of religious claims.” (P. 239).

And, as for the question of revelation – the charge is that since God language is humanly created, and serves “particular personal and social functions,” it must have no divine component. The question is, why make this judgment? Why can’t humanly constructed language be a viable means of divine self-revelation?

The reality is this – we can’t run away from functionalist critiques and analysis. Religion is, at least in some ways, socially constructed. The evidence is there – in terms of the rites and rituals that we use. But, if we accept this social analysis, there will be a cost to pay. We’ll have to be more careful about our faith statements. It’s quite possible, even likely, that some of our God-talk will say more about us than it does about God.

“Theology and anthropology do not exist in pristine purity, worlds apart, and none of us practices a religion that is completely culture-free.” (P. 239).

Thus, we must recognize that some, if not much, of our religious language comes not from above, but is socially constructed. That doesn’t mean that it’s false, it’s just that we must recognize our role in this process. But, having said this, that doesn’t mean that theology has no role to play in the conversation. Indeed, it has an important role in giving “a theological account of what is occurring.” (P. 239). The question is, what kind of account should theology be giving? To give an answer, we must recognize that just as the natural sciences raise questions that theology must deal with, so do the social sciences. And one of the most important questions concerns why homo sapiens, as a species, are so concerned about questions of meaning – so much that they turn to religion as a way of answering this question? Why do we see the universe as being religiously meaningful? One answer is that it’s “meaningful because God has created the universe and wishes to be in relationship with intelligent life (or all life).” (P. 241).

It is the question of meaning that leads to theological conversation. The kinds of question that the social sciences offer to theology include, questions of meaning and whether the best explanatory models come from the natural sciences or the social sciences. There are two key questions that are raised – contrasting ones. Will human beings be explained in “distinctly human terms and predicates? Or, will the answers be found by going to “a trans-human level, for example, humans as made in the image of God and reflecting the divine nature and intentions?” (pp. 242-243). Is it possible that our answers can be found as we wrestle with the question of God, by studying ourselves? That is the question.

The natural sciences provide some boundaries for our God-talk. The social sciences offer a different set of questions – equally challenging – but in the end enlightening. We are, as a species, concerned about meaning and purpose. The question is, does God play a role? There is no absolute proof either way, but for millenniums the human species has looked to religion to offer explanations. They may not all agree, and the rites, rituals, beliefs and practices may be socially constructed, but that doesn’t mean that the very core there isn’t truth to be found.


Anonymous said…
I have no answers. Most of the questions seem rhetorical. I am encouraged that our own religion and theology have evolved to the point where persons are no longer tortured into accepting "truth" or living beings sacrificed to appease a spirit. Love is pretty special no matter how it comes about. I‘m all in favor of blaming it on a higher power. Hearing you ask the questions is pretty awesome. Answers will come.

David Mc
John said…

You said:
And, it is believed if faith is socially constructed, then ultimately it lacks validity.

Then chemistry, which is socially constructed is likewise invalid.

Chemistry is not invalid. It is the science of substances. Its practice, though not without hazards, improves the human condition.

The practice of religion, in this sense, (and also fraught with hazards) improves the human condition. Chemistry is easier to grasp in way because substances, are usually tangible. Religion is more difficult to grasp, being akin to studying electrons or other subatomic particles - you can only see their consequences, never the objects themselves.

You ask:
Why can’t humanly constructed language be a viable means of divine self-revelation?
Since humans communicate and interpret their environment through their language, how else would God communicate with humans except through language? Not that divine communication could not register in some other fashion, but why is the medium of language suspect. Perhaps human language is part of the breath of God which resides within humanity, separating us from clay, and the other beasts of the earth.

John said…
You say:

It’s quite possible, even likely, that some of our God-talk will say more about us than it does about God.

Well of course this would be true. Every human utterance, at its core, remains a human utterance, originating in the mind of the utterer and constrained by the language and the culture of the utterer. Anything else would be robotic, gibberish, and ultimately inauthentic.

But that does not invalidate the core truth of the utterance, if authentically inspired by God, nor does it invalidate the relationship between the utterer and God from which the utterance proceeds.

You said; We are, as a species, concerned about meaning and purpose.

Perhaps this is how we reflect the image and likeness of God. Before the act of creation "God was". Perhaps in the vacuum of God's prior condition, God created the universe as an event of meaning, a "something" where there was "nothing." And, with the dawn of (human) intelligence in the universe, we too reach out for meaning and purpose. And in this process, we reconnect with our Creator, in terms of emulation, and in terms of relationship.

Acknowledging that religion, like language, is a social construct, the divine/human relationship surrenders nothing; it only demonstrates that it has matured to the point of self-awareness.

Anonymous said…
In the beginning, the Word existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. John 1:1

The Word became flesh and lived among us. We gazed on his glory, the kind of glory that belongs to the Father's unique Son, who is full of grace and truth. John 1:14

This transcends chemistry by a long shot. It encompasses everything. Is it simple minded to hold these truths as self evident? Am I old fashioned after all? What are words but parts of rational thought? Perhaps if we live our lives in a pleasing way, perhaps our existence is ensured through his cosmic memory. That’s the promise from what I understand.

David Mc

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