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Coffee & Wisdom 02.83: The Common Task Part 4

David Breeden is speaking all week about the common task.


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Hello, I’m David Breeden, I’m the senior minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. And this is coffee and wisdom. Got a reminder for you. We are going to summer wisdom next week. So next week we will be going to a live on Tuesdays and Thursdays schedule. Just as a reminder, we’ll be live at 9:00 a.m. Central Time on Tuesdays and Thursdays beginning next week for our summer wisdom. So we get out into the world a little bit more. This week. We have been looking at the idea of a common task, and specifically I’m looking at how can a nation that is increasingly secular stick together and have a task to do. And I’ve been looking at ways in which a lot of religious people would argue that we can’t because you have to have a common religious heritage. Well, that’s not going to happen in the U.S. So how are we going to do this? Other thing is the question I’ve been talking about Charles Taylor, a very important Roman Catholic philosopher from Canada. His central book is A Secular Age from the from twenty seven. The central question of that book is, why was it virtually impossible not to believe in God in, say, fifteen hundred in our Western society? Well, in 2000, many of us find this not only easy, but even in escapable. That’s the central question of the book. Again, Charles Taylor being a religious person, but is he’s taking secularity very seriously in the way that he is considering how we are changing in the Western world, what he calls the the North Atlantic states.

This is a common critique of secularism from Charles Taylor. Quote, The dark side of individualism is a centering on the self which both flattens and narrows our lives, makes them poorer and meaning and less concerned with others or society. Very common critique. And he does go into some ways that’s not the case. But that is a central thesis of the book that secularity equals concern for self and unconcern for others and for society. I mentioned this book yesterday. It’s an earlier book, Charles Taylor A Sources of Self. He says that we have so many options that we have become perpetual seekers and that is the reason for. He argues that what we call identity politics that is occurring certainly in the US but also in Canada. And his argument is that identity politics, this idea of being perpetually seeking for the self, the authentic self, then produces this extreme individualism and it can be politically divisive. But also, he says, and I agree, that it can also function to call us to our better selves as we examine and reexamine our attitudes, our prejudices, where we’re coming from and why we think certain things. So here are some questions that I want to ask that I don’t necessarily know the answers to.

Those are the right kind of questions. First is, is religious thinking a different way of thinking from other ways of thinking? Because Charles Taylor certainly is saying, yes, it is. But is that the case? If so, how is religious thinking different than secular thinking? And if not, what is it in other forums? What is religious thinking from a secular standpoint? I think these are central questions to ask. A lot of philosophers and theologians are thinking about these issues these days. There are lots of answers floating around out there. But the real answer, I don’t know, it may still be eluding us. But these are very, very good questions to be asking. I think another book that Charles Taylor wrote is called Modern Social. Imagine areas. He didn’t make up this term. He didn’t coined the term, but he uses it a great deal. The social imaginary, according to Taylor, is a matrix or web of stated and unstated assumptions that create the illusion of a particular society. So when we talk about American society, it is the American social imaginary that we are discussing now. One of the objections here would be, well, yes, but everybody’s different. Well, that’s true. But there are still sustainable social Imagineer is going on. So another question, kind of like the former three is, are religious and secular, secular Imagineer is fundamentally different, specifically, superficially different, not actually different, but expressed in different ways.

Are they different? And if so, how is are they different or are they just using different languages to talk about these things? So, again, the American social imaginary, we do say that there are American values the American way. Well, this is really talking about what in sociological terms is called the social imaginary. And what is it what does it look like? How does it affect people of various kinds, especially people who would then be considered oppressed groups? These are good questions I’ve mentioned before. Alec Rary, professor of history of Christianity at Durham University and a professor of divinity at Gresham College, London. His magisterial book is Protestants The Faith That Made the Modern World. I definitely recommend it if you have any interest in a European and then American Protestantism at all. He is the expert on Protestantism in the English speaking world. It’s great. It’s a great book. You can see lots of discussion of it online. And he has some great lectures that are available on YouTube that he does at Gresham College that are recorded. Brilliant speaker, brilliant man, and absolutely central to how we understand Protestantism these days. The book that I have mentioned before that I think is very important, and it’s his latest book is called On Believers and Emotional History of Doubt. This book is looking at the idea of unbelief within European contexts. And I quoted this a little bit earlier in the week.

The religions that will prosper in this environment, which is secularism, will be those that work with the grain of humanist ethics while finding ways to offer something that humanism cannot. Now, Sirius’s talking about liberal Protestantism, not the conservative American kind of Protestantism, by the way, which will not agree with secularism. We pretty well understand. But he is saying that the the traditional mainline Protestant isms must work with ideas of humanism and secularism if they are going to survive. And I totally agree with that idea. Now, going into the book, quotes from this particular book, again, The History of Unbelief is going to argue that it’s much older than we think it is. So he has this to say during the persecution and religious wars of the 17th century. So the sixteen hundreds fury at the church easily became righteous anger. Was this really how Jesus Christ would have lived? And as believers caught in the crossfire were threatened with hellfire by preachers on every side, they asked themselves the once unthinkable question is hell just another contract? Would a good God ever truly condemn his creations to eternal torment? In an American context, we know this as universalism, but this was a question going on in the European mind in general, in the 16 and 17 hundreds going back to quote from friary, maybe a few people began to wonder the most truly moral thing to do was to walk away from all this so-called religion.

So he’s talking about people who begin, especially during these wars of religion that are raging across Europe in the sixteen hundreds. Might it be that religion is in itself an immoral thing? And I just simply as a moral person, can no longer believe in these things. I’m skipping to an interview from a Sokolova, the Public Square magazine from Arkansas, Arizona State University, in which he says, in fact, anxiety about unbelief stretches back even before the Reformation in the 16th century. And indeed, he does trace this back into the 12 and 13 hundreds back to the quote from him. This type of early atheism is usually dismissed by historians on the grounds that it had no serious philosophical backing. And that’s true. But that fact simply shows that unbelief has as existed in practice before it existed in theory. So, again, notice what he’s saying. Yeah, we can trace this history of atheism. We can begin with the French philosophers. We can talk about the Enlightenment. But actually, the European mind had already begun thinking in this direction long before the intellectuals began to talk about it. Right. People who read and write books have a persistent tendency, he says, to overestimate the power of ideas. But how many of us actually change our beliefs or our lives as a result of a chain of conscious reasoning? The conventional story has it that philosophers attacked religion and people then stopped believing.

But what if people stopped believing and then invented arguments to justify their unbelief? This is the center of his argument in this book. And I think it’s a very good idea because when I talk to people who have stopped believing, generally speaking, their answer has something to do with their moral understanding being different from and perhaps even more and moral than the religious understandings that they grew up with. Bacteria, quote, Most of us from the Middle Ages to the present have always made the great choices about our beliefs, values, identities and purposes intuitively and emotionally with our whole selves. That applies to religious faith, which, as we all know, is often chosen for instinctive, inarticulate, intuitive reasons. But it is just as true of unbelief. So the very kinds of things that make people believe and he lists those their intuition, emotion, we feel it in our bodies. The same things that make people religious also make people unreligious. If those the religious belief systems in some somehow encounter with them some kind of objection on moral, ethical grounds, he goes on to say, this is not because belief or unbelief is irrational. It is because human beings are irrational, or rather because we are not calculating machines. The emotional history of belief and unbelief suggests that our intuition often has a certain wisdom to it. As Blaise Pascal, one of the 17th century shrewdest wrestlers with doubt put it, the heart has its reasons of which reason capital, our reason knows nothing.

And quote from Blaise Pascal He knew that we rarely choose either belief or unbelief. They choose us. And so Reyher is saying this entire push in European thinking away from traditional Christianity and beginning in the 14 15 hundreds and accelerating even faster today is about a moral decision that Christianity itself is not a moral idea. One of my favorite philosophers that I’ve mentioned several times of coffee and wisdom over the years as Martha Nussbaum, a philosopher from the University of Chicago, who says you can’t really change the heart without telling a story. She is a moral, ethical philosopher, and I think she is absolutely right about this. You can’t really change the heart without telling a story. And that’s exactly what Raillery is saying about what happened to Christianity, especially after the Protestant. At reformation period, people began to back away, changing their hearts because the story of Christianity for them was about violence, about politics, and they simply couldn’t believe in it anymore as an ethical stance. And that’s discussed in her book Political Emotions Why Love Matters for Justice. She, like Riri, is very much involved in the idea that what we think we’re thinking philosophically is actually very much a whole body embodied person response to beliefs that are a counter to the general push, especially in the US of conventional Christianity.

But now a lot of us just can’t go there because of our moral objections. Indeed, one of the things that we’re seeing and this is Pew Research and it says change in regional distribution of Christians between 2010, 10 years ago and 20, 50. And one of the things that you’re going to notice, if you look at a chart like this and you can look it up online, is that the global south by 2050 will have over 50 percent of all Christians, over 50 percent of all Christians will live in the global south. That would be Latin America, sub Saharan Africa and, of course, parts of the Pacific islands and in the Pacific. So how many Christians will actually be in the old birthplace of Christianity, those places where they call it the the colonizers were coming from and making other people be Christian or else, while only about twenty five percent of the Christians by 20, 50 will live in North America and Europe. So we are looking at a major change in the the gravity, shall we say, of Christianity so that it is moving toward the global south. And again, I think raillery is correct that the Protestant Reformation set in into play an idea that could occur to people, which is that, wait a minute, Christianity itself has some real moral problems to it. And so in North America, that would be the US and Canada and in Europe away people go from the Christian tradition and probably only of somewhere around nine to 10 percent of Americans will be Christian in North America and in the and then in Europe and even less so.

We’re really looking at a change in how the colonized Christianity is spreading out around the world. So back to my questions. Is religious thinking a different way of thinking from other ways of thinking? If so, how is it different? And if not, what is it like in other forms? Riri would definitely argue that it is not different, that actually it is an intuitive moral decision making process for our higher values. But if that’s true, then how are we going to have a common working idea of society when most people will be not at all religious? Again, this frightens conservative religious people. Not so much for we liberals, especially humanists, but it is definitely something we’re talking about in the world today. Thanks a lot for listening. I’ll be here Sunday 10 thirty a.m. Central Time Burying the lead, the power of Mayday. I want to talk about the stories of Mayday and what makes this time of year especially interesting for new ideas and new projects. And we’ll be back tomorrow to summarize what we’ve been talking about in terms of secularity and a common purpose for this week. Thanks a lot.

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