Religious Perspectives

In the seventeenth century, knowledge of nature became more secularized (that is, divorced from the sacred) as scientists developed models of the universe as a giant machine. Its ways could be discovered by human reason, by studying its component parts and mathematically quantifying its characteristics. However, even in discovering such features, many scientists regarded them as the work of a divine Creator or Ruler. ... The old unitary concepts of science and religion received another serious challenge in 1859, when the naturalist Charles Darwin (1809-1882) published The Origin of Species, a work that propounded the theory of evolution by natural selection. Darwin demonstrated that certain genetic mutations give an organism a competitive advantage over others of its species. ... According to evolutionary biology theory, over great lengths of time such gradual changes have brought the development of all forms of life. The theory of natural selection directly contradicted a literal understanding of the biblical Book of Genesis, in which God is said to have created all life in only six days. By the end of the nineteenth century, all such beliefs of the Judeo-Christian tradition were being questioned. (Living Religions, 19-20)

In the current dialogue between science and religion, four general positions have emerged. One is a conflict model, which is most apparent in issues such as creation, with some scientists rejecting any form of supernatural agency and some religionists holding onto faith in a Creator God whose existence cannot be proved by scientific method. A second position is that science and religion deal with separate realms. That is, religions deal with matters such as morality, hope, answers to philosophical questions (“Why are we here?”), and ideas about life after death, whereas science deals with quantifiable physical reality. In this position, a person can live with “two truths,” and neither side is required to venture into the other’s domain. A third position is that of dialogue, in which scientists and religious believers can find common ground in interpreting religious propositions as metaphors and bases for the moral use of scientific research. Claims to absolute truth are softened on each side. A fourth position is that of integration, in which science and religion overlap ... [for at] the cutting edge of research, scientists themselves find they have no ultimate answers that can be expressed in scientific terms. (Living Religions, 24-5)
  • Are science and religion fundamentally incompatible?
  • How have different religions responded to the challenge posed by science and rationality?
Absolutists and Liberals
Within each faith people may ... have different ways of interpreting their traditions. The orthodox stand by an historical form of their religion, strictly following its established practices, laws, and creeds. Those who resist contemporary influences and affirm what they perceive as the historical core of their religion could be called absolutists. In our times, many people feel that their identity as individuals or as members of an established group is threatened by the sweeping changes brought by modern global industrial culture. The breakup of family relationships, loss of geographic rootedness, decay of clear behavioral codes, and loss of local control may be very unsettling. To find a stable footing, to attempt to preserve their distinctive identity as a people in the face of modernity and secularization, some people may try to stand on selected religious doctrines or practices from the past. Religious leaders may encourage this trend toward rigidity by declaring themselves absolute authorities or by telling the people that their scriptures are literally and exclusively true. They may encourage antipathy or even violence against people of other religious traditions.
The term fundamentalism is often applied to this selective insistence on parts of a religious tradition and to highly negative view of people of other religions. This use of the term is misleading, for no religion is based on hatred of other people and because those who are labeled “fundamentalists” may not be engaged in a return to the true basics of their religion. ...
Those who are called religious liberals, also sometimes called progressives, take a more flexible approach to religious tradition. They may see scriptures as products of a specific culture and time rather than the eternal voice of truth, and may interpret passages metaphorically rather than literally. ...
While absolutists tend to take their scriptures and received religious traditions as literally true, liberals have for several centuries been engaged in a different approach to understanding their own religions and those of others: historical-critical studies. These are academic attempts to reconstruct the historical life stories of prophets and their cultures as opposed to legends about them, and to subject their scriptures to objective analysis. ... Non-faith-based methods of exegesis (critical explanation or interpretation of texts) reveal that “sacred” scriptures may include polemics against opponents of the religion, myths, cultural influences, ethical instruction, later interpolations, mistakes by copyists, literary devices, factual history, and genuine spiritual inspiration. ... Although such research attempts to be objective, it is not necessarily undertaken with sceptical intentions. To the contrary, these forms of research are taught in many seminaries as ways of reconciling faith with reason. (Living Religions, 17-9)
  • Are the absolutists right for holding on to the beliefs and practices that sustained them in the past ... or are the liberals right for being flexible and adapting to the times?
  • Can the phenomenological approach to the study of religion help us resolve this conflict?

I. A Not-So-Random Universe
Patrick Glynn
…The fine-tuning of seemingly heterogeneous values and ratios necessary to get from the big bang to life as we know it involves intricate coordination over vast differences in scale — from the galactic level down to the subatomic one — and across multi-billion-year tracts of time. Hoyle, who coined the term “big bang,” has questioned the very legitimacy of the metaphor of an initial “explosion.” “An explosion in a junkyard does not lead to sundry bits of metal being assembled into a useful working machine,” he writes. The more physicists have learned about the universe, the more it looks like a put-up job.
       The great modern era…is at an end. It is truly justifiable to speak of our current period as the “postmodern age.” And there is every reason to suppose that this postmodern age will also be postsecular, since the original philosophical assumptions underpinning the modern secular worldview have been shattered — ironically enough, by science itself….
       The barrier that modern science appeared to erect to faith has fallen. Of course, the anthropic principle tells us nothing about the Person of God or the existence of an afterlife; it has nothing to say about such issues as right or wrong or the “problem of evil.” But it does offer as strong an indication as reason and science alone could be expected to provide that God exists. (Anthology of Living Religions, 19)
  • Is this a convincing argument for the existence of God?
  • How does this argument affect the traditional interpretation of Genesis in the Judeo-Christian tradition? What are the broader implications of reinterpreting the “literal” meaning of the bible to accommodate science and rationality?
  • Does this argument imply a monotheistic conception of God, or is it consistent with the existence of many gods? Does it support some religious traditions more than others, or is it potentially consistent with all religions?
II. The New Polytheism
David Miller

Religiously, polytheism is the worship of many gods and goddesses. Though monotheism in its exclusive forms — say, in Christianity, Judaism, and Islam — rules out the possibility of polytheism in religion, polytheism, in a curious way, includes a monotheism of sorts. The great polytheist cultures — Greek, Hindu, Egyptian, Mesopotamian, American Indian — have in actual practice been composed of communities of men and women who worship one God or Goddess, or at least they worship one at a time — Athena, Vishnu, Ra, Baal, Wakan Tanka. The theologies of these peoples, however, affirm the reality and the worship of many. This implies that a polytheistic religion is actually a polytheistic theology, a system of symbolizing reality in a plural way in order to account for all experience, but that the religious practice is composed of consecutive monotheisms. Similarly, it would seem possible that one might profess a monotheistic faith, but need a polytheistic theology to account for all of one’s experiences in the life-context of that faith. (Anthology of Living Religions, 15)
  • What does Miller mean by “polytheism” and in what sense can it include the notion of “monotheism”?
  • What would the implications of such a “polytheistic theology be with regard to a monotheistic tradition such as Judaism, Christianity, or Islam?
  • Do you think that contemporary monotheistic traditions are capable of adopting such a polytheistic conception of “the Divine”? What are the implications of rejecting such a position?
III. The Ground of Being
Tarthang Tulku

All of us are part of being; we are being. Our total life experience is this being, this ground, which embraces all of existence. Nirvana [in Buddhism, the cessation of suffering, attained through spiritual awakening] and samsara [the endless round of bodily reincarnations in this world, with all its illusions] are both manifested within this ground level. The more we understand this, the more life becomes rich and fulfilling. We see that this ground of being is totally open; everything is manifest there. Nothing can destroy this openness. Meditation enables us to remain at this ground state for long periods of time. ... But once we are skilled at perceiving the arising and flowing of thought, we are able to go beyond this level of perception, to experience a level that is similar to the fresh perception of childhood. We are able to directly experience mind as a process. When we can soar, when we can transmute the quality of the mind, then we approach genuine freedom. (Anthology of Living Religions, 16)
  • What does Tarthang Tulku mean by the statement: “All of us are part of being; we are being. Our total life experience is this being, this ground, which embraces all of existence”?
  • Do you think it is possible to attain a direct realization of this “unity of being” — a state in which “genuine freedom” is fully realized?
  • Is this perspective “rational” or does it rely primarily on “religious faith”?
  • Is this perspective consistent with the major religious traditions of the West — Judaism, Christianity and Islam?

IV. God as Dominating Other
Judith Plaskow
It is not simply male metaphors that need to be broken ... but also the larger picture of who God is. ... The God of Jewish liturgy is a king robed in majesty, a merciful but probing father, and master of the world. His sovereign Otherness is elaborated extensively: his dominion over creation, his control of history past and future, his revenge against his enemies, his power over the human soul. ...
       The notion of God as dominating Other finds quintessential expression in the image of the holy warrior who punishes the wicked with destruction and death. The God who hears the groaning of his people in Egypt is a fighter more powerful than all the armies of Pharaoh, a God whose army can destroy the Egyptians, drowning them in the seas (Exodus 15). When Israel enters the promised land, God is present in his ark at the head of its marching armies, giving military victory over city after city (Joshua). Hardening the hearts of the local people, God ensures that they “should receive no mercy” but be “utterly destroyed” (Joshua 11:20). ...
       Metaphors of sovereignty, lordship, kingship, and judicial and military power evoke images of arbitrary and autocratic rule that have been rejected in the human political sphere at the same time they live on in religious language. If the image of God as male provides religious support for male dominance in society, the image of God as supreme Other would seem to legitimate dominance of any kind. God as ruler and king of the universe is the pinnacle of a vast hierarchy that extends from God “himself” to angels/men/women/children/animals and finally the earth. As hierarchical ruler, God is a model for the many schemes of dominance that human beings create for themselves. (
Anthology of Living Religions, 30-1)
  • What is the main point that the author is making?
  • Do you think that God is male, female, both or neither?
  • Do we possess the liberty to change how we think about God, or are the sacred depictions of God from the past immutable?
  • Is there a place for the feminine in a contemporary Judeo-Christian-Islamic theology?
Final Question
What are the implications of these four passages with regard to the pluralistic world of religion in which we live? Do they open up possibilities for interfaith dialogue and if so, how?
Use Instead

Do you know which faith is most compatible with your religious beliefs?
Belief-O-Matic does!!!