Saturday, October 01, 2005

Comparative Religion: Beginning with Truth and Goodness

This is the first post in a series exploring world religions. Here I introduce my methods and goals

At the outset I have to ask myself, "What kind of fool would write about comparative religion?" For one thing, no one person can possibly know all there is to know about any one of the major religions, much less all of them. For another, every person already has his or her own unique beliefs, whether in favor of a particular religion, or in favor of neutrality, or in favor of hostility towards all religions, or even in favor of harmonizing them. But that is the human condition; we all share it. That does not excuse us from doing the best we can to learn the truth. Neither should it prevent us from appreciating what we see that is good. That is what I hope to accomplish here: to seek only truth and to appreciate all that is good, wherever it may be found. Only from there can we make any rational approach to our own beliefs, which are nothing more or less than what we think to be true and good.

But right at the outset I've begged the questions about "truth" and "goodness." If we are to keep going with this effort at all with "truth" and "goodness" being our guideposts, we must have some clear ideea what these mean.

I know there have been endless conversations on these definitions, but for now let's take some basic working definitions. Let "truth" mean "that which is in agreement with reality." Reality may be differently perceived; those perceptions which are closer to reality are closer to truth by definition. For those who say there is no truth, that amounts to saying there is no reality, which is nonsense. (If we're going to make any progress at all, we can't be too shy about throwing out nonsense. As anyone who has studied religion already knows, there's a lot of nonsense out there.) But in this effort, I'd like to be doubly on my guard against being hasty or careless because those exact problems are so plentiful in "comparative religion" studies. People of all camps (single-religion, anti-religion, neutrality, harmonization) have often buried entire armies of opposing strawmen without managing to learn a thing in the process. I'd rather not throw out anything which contains any germ of truth, no matter how small. After all, if it's truth that we're seeking, we can't afford to be careless about it.

The more moderate view from those who question the idea of "truth" is simply that we have trouble perceiving reality accurately. Any book on the history of science or the history of religion should give adequate proof that we have long struggled to learn of reality, and have often failed or been badly mistaken. We can expect that our grandchildren's generation will shake their heads and smile at the ignorance of our times, just as we do over certain pages in our own history books. It is relatively easy for us to perceive the reality of things in front of us -- the keyboard under my fingers, the screen on which my words are displayed, the chair on which I sit. The reality that "there is a keyboard under my fingers as I type this" -- is beyond rational dispute. There's no well-founded doubt that it's true. But as things are further from our direct perception, as we come to depend more on the increasingly remote implications of our perceptions, it becomes increasingly difficult to discern reality and increasingly questionable whether we are certain of the truth.

It's easy to get ahead of myself here and start analyzing various religions along lines of truth, perception, and distance from observation (speculation). I'll look at all that in due course (not in the present post!). But so far I've only looked at one of the questions begged at the outset: truth. The matter of "goodness" deserves the same attention.

"Goodness" is a trickier concept than "truth" for reasons we've already discussed: "goodness" is a quality, not a direct perception but an evaluation. For the keyboard under my fingers, the simple fact of its existence is all we need to know about it to be sure of its reality. "Goodness" can be evaluated in different ways. For my keyboard, all I want of it is usefulness. But for something else -- for example, the tree outside my window -- it has no real use to me but I would consider its loss to be more of a loss than if I had to replace this keyboard. This particular tree is of no real use to me, so why do I value it? For its life? For its beauty? Because it is an expression of whatever power has set the world in motion? And are these necessarily three different things, or possibly three different ways of asking the same question? Is the tree's life, its beauty, and the power that set the world in motion all from the same source? All that is separate from whether the tree actually has a "purpose" in the same way in which the keyboard was designed with a purpose in mind.

The same questions can be asked of persons. Does mankind have an inherent beauty? An inherent purpose? Is there a creator whose purposes for us are rightly considered in the assessment of whether we are "good"?

I intend to leave these questions open for the time being as we explore further. It's my purpose not to miss anything good; and if "good" has different kinds of meanings, it would be a pity to miss any of them. For discussion of what is "good" we will keep an eye to purpose and usefulness, to nature and harmony with nature, to different kinds of value. But if "goodness" implies a quality that is desirable for some reason, then one possible key to understanding "goodness" is desire, or desirability. That opens other questions such as: whose desires?

Some of the subjects we've touched on here have side-paths left unexplored for today such as reality and illusion, or the relationships between different ways of seeing "goodness". But this will do for today. More to come.

The road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began
(J.R.R. Tolkien)

1 comment:

Editor Choice said...

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