Previous section (Chapters 9-10)
VI. “Earth-Centered Traditions” Source
11. For the Beauty of the Earth
Page 190-91 (Church)
Most Unitarian Universalists are immune to the theological temptation toward irrationalism. Irrational beliefs are those that can be disproved by facts. But, tapping our Transcendentalist roots, we are beginning, once again, to acknowledge that much of our experience, and everything that lies beyond our experience, defies rational analysis. Most sacred clues, hints from dream journeys, lovemaking and stargazing, spring from deep within the transrational realm. Though we can in such ways experience a tiny portion of ultimate reality, this reality is neither fathomable nor imaginable. We cannot pin it down or mount it as a trophy on the wall of human knowledge. All we can do is return from our journeys with symbols, metaphors, and stories—the basic building blocks of religion.
If we exclude the transrational realm from our field of contemplation, we delude ourselves. We may begin to presume that we understand, even control, powers completely beyond our control and understanding. We then lose our sense of humility, taking the creation for granted, rather than receiving it, with fear and trembling, as an undeserved, unfathomable gift. Whenever knowledge supplants mystery, our imagination and sense of wonder are just as likely to die as are the gods we pride ourselves for disbelieving. Having dismissed the supernatural, we may miss discovering the super in the natural.
What are we to think, those of us who see no conflict at all between “gain[s] in scientific understanding” and “an intimate experience of the power and mystery of creation”? Who find very alarming the claim that “[w]henever knowledge supplants mystery, our imagination and sense of wonder are just as likely to die as” supernaturalism is? (Those two are the most rabidly anti-science sentences I’ve ever read from a UU.) Should a nonbelieving reader draw the conclusion that UUs are required to be opposed to science? She will!
But back to Church’s odd account of reason. “Irrational beliefs are those that can be disproved by facts” is simply incorrect. I contend that irrational beliefs are in fact those that fail the tests of reason: among other factors, a belief or theory is irrational if it is (1) unsupported by evidence; (2) unparsimonious (i.e., an unnecessarily complex explanation of the evidence); (3) non-falsifiable (i.e., no test, even in theory, could prove it false); and/or (4) internally logically contradictory. Church’s statement notwithstanding, an irrational belief isn’t even necessarily false; such a belief is just outside of our ability to determine responsibly whether or not it’s true. Very, very few “irrational belief[s]” held by real people can actually be conclusively “disproved by facts”—and anyway the burden of proof is never on the doubter.
I flatly deny that “much of [human] experience, and everything that lies beyond our experience, defies rational analysis.” Any actual realm of human knowledge or ignorance can be analyzed rationally. The rational answer will almost always carry some degree of uncertainty (frequently it’s “we have no way to know”—that’s still analysis!), and for that reason, among others, the rational answer may be one that the questioner does not want to hear. But the fact that Church doesn’t like reason’s answer doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have one.
Church is, as usual, entirely evasive when it comes to what this “transrational realm” really is. He informs us that “[m]ost sacred clues, hints from dream journeys, lovemaking and stargazing” are “transrational”—but what in the world does that mean? Let’s see: I have felt awe during lovemaking and stargazing, and it was wonderful, powerful and perhaps “sacred.” What does any of that have to do with reason or “the transrational”? There is nothing irrational about my experience in lovemaking and stargazing or in my conclusion (based entirely on subjective sensations that are self-evident to me) that they were awesome, wonderful and powerful. Is finding meaning, wonder or power in anything necessarily “transrational”? If so, Church is horribly defaming skeptics in passages like this.
“Dream journeys.” Okay: arguably the most famous “dream journey” in history was taken by chemist Friedrich Kekulé in the 1850s. Kekulé claimed that, after years of studying carbon bonding, benzene and related molecules, the solution to the benzene structure (it’s a ring) came to him in a dream of a snake eating its own tail. Subsequent experiments showed the ring hypothesis to be correct.
What does a thoroughgoing “transrationalist” take this to mean? That benzene would “transrationally” have had a ring structure even if the (scrupulously rational) subsequent experiments had indicated that Kekulé’s dream inspiration was wrong? That purely rational methods would have failed to find the structure of benzene? (No dice—we now know that another scientist had the idea before Kekulé, and he didn’t get it in a dream.) That Kekulé had some way of knowing about the universe that isn’t subject to reason? (Then how come he bothered to perform experiments?)
It seems to me that there are perfectly understandable rational explanations for all of this—for my experiences regarding lovemaking and stargazing, for Kekulé’s dream, and for all the rest of it. The fact that Church thinks these answers kill off one’s “imagination and sense of wonder” is, I think, a sad commentary on Church, not a real flaw in reason. The sun doesn’t go around the earth just because Church’s representative in the matter (Pope Urban VIII, the guy who imprisoned Galileo for the heresy of geocentrism) really, really wanted or needed that to be the case: no, the Pope’s “transrational” preference failed to change the actual objective state of the universe.
What does it really mean to “exclude the transrational realm from our field of contemplation”? To refuse to accept a belief about the objective world that comes entirely from somebody’s dream? I’m sorry, but I think swallowing every claim that every human being has ever (quite literally) dreamed up is totally impossible, not to mention enormously ill-advised. And “I find X inspiring” or “I find Y moving” or “Z really matters to me” are not, in fact, statements that violate reason, so a rationalist need not “exclude” those. (Indeed, I wonder how any human being could live without this kind of idea; real-life rationalists certainly don’t lack them.)
Once again, what’s most important here is that this passage serves as a big middle finger extended at people who value reason over the “transrational.” To anyone who dares to take that position (and there are many thousands of us, both within and without UUism, who do so), Church here declares that we are “pride” and “control” freaks, we have lost our “humility,” our “imagination and sense of wonder” and that we “miss discovering the super in the natural.” This is seriously offensive.
Page 193-94 (Church)
But then, any hope of this sentence making even half-hearted progress (“Oh, boy, it’s not an insult!”) toward a positive picture of nonbelievers is banished by the word “even.” It might interest Forrest Church to know that, in fact, a fairly large proportion of UUs are atheists. Church very likely holds a common misconception of what “atheism” means (it is not, as Church’s statement implies and the conventional wisdom holds, an extreme position on the same spectrum as “agnosticism”), but that’s hard to forgive in light of the man’s profession. And anyway, atheists, even as that term is conventionally misunderstood, are not particularly rare within Unitarian Universalism.
I’m an atheist, not a unicorn. The above sentence treats me as if I were both (“even”), and I resent that.
12. Returning to the Springs
Pages 199-200 (Buehrens)
That was when my grandfather stopped going to church—when it seemed his wife was going to die as well, the priest wouldn’t come to the house to give her the last rites. ...
The idea that any worthwhile person could have a reason for not attending church that deserves respect rather than derision or pity is entirely foreign to the authors of this book. That strikes me as serious bigotry.
Page 201 (Buehrens)
I question the right of any UU to claim that he “know[s]” what an idea like “faith” is “ultimately about.” That word means different things to different people, and UUs especially, so to claim that any person “kn[e]w intuitively” the One Right Answer to such a contentious issue is at least a bit pompous.
I strongly concur with Buehrens’ grandmother’s feeling that “living with courage, gratitude and integrity in spite of life’s inevitable losses” is extremely important. To me, though, that has nothing to do with “faith,” because I see that word differently than Buehrens and (apparently) his grandmother do. It seems to me that “proclaim[ing]” what such terms are “ultimately about” is precisely the kind of thing Unitarian Universalism, and its Fourth Principle specifically, are not supposed to aid.
I do not appreciate being told that my understanding of the word “faith” is “not ultimately” what the word means. I do not accept that Buehrens has the right to claim superior knowledge on this question. And, finally, I know quite well that this kind of arrogant pronouncement, which saturates A Chosen Faith, is extraordinarily off-putting to readers who dare to dissent from the authors’ allegedly superior conceptions.
Next section (Conclusion)
12: Along the lines of this essay, imagine two beliefs: “Julius Caesar had an even number of teeth in his mouth when he died” and “Julius Caesar had an odd number of teeth in his mouth when he died.” Presuming a couple of historical and mathematical facts that nobody I know of disputes, one of those two beliefs has to be true—and yet both of them are irrational, because we have no evidence to support either one. People who criticize reason and/or rationalism (Forrest Church is a shining example) routinely fail to understand what it is they’re attacking.
13: This is ridiculous. By far the most common rational answer in the history of human endeavor is “I don’t know,” which I submit is vastly humbler than any “transrational” hypothesis I’ve ever heard of.
14: Please note that it was Church, just one paragraph earlier, who was denigrating human imagination!