Thursday, April 18, 2013

Religion and Meaning-Making

Science is a relatively new development in the evolution of humanity. Before science, religion told us the what and how of life. For example, to explain the fact that many lizards have legs but snakes do not, Jewish science gave us the Theory of Eden where the snake loses its legs as punishment for seducing the woman to eat from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. This was good science in its day. Not so much in our own.

Even believers in biblical literacy rarely use the Eden Theory to explain why snakes have no legs. You could argue that this is a sign that science is winning, and that may make you sad. But it is also a sign that religion is being liberated, and that makes me glad.

Religion at its best is the meaning making function of humanity. Its tools are imagination, symbol, narrative, and ritual. When forced to function as a science, religion did the best it could, but today, liberated from the obligation to be science, it can do what it is uniquely suited to do: make meaning.

Science frees religion to be its best, and at its best religion works hand in hand with science: asking science to reveal the facts of nature so that religion can fashion its meaning. The reason science and religion are in conflict is that there are still many religious folks who refuse to abandon the old role of religion as science. But eventually science will win. And so will religion.

Religion as meaning making will celebrate science, but not be cowed by science. Where science may see a lack of meaning in nature, religion can say, “Not so—we humans are nature’s way of making meaning.” We humans are the way God or Reality or Tao or Nature makes meaning just as an apple tree is the way God or Reality or Tao or Nature makes apples.

I find this so exciting. Every time science discovers something new, especially when that something new seems to shake the foundation of our current level of meaning, it is a fresh opportunity for religion to make new meaning. And because we are using our creativity and imagination to do this—the very things that, along with our thumbs—make us of value to the universe—we need not defend old and outmoded meanings, but celebrate our capacity to create new meanings. Religion, when it is free from having to be science, is free to embrace science and make meaning in response to it.

Religion as meaning making will require a new kind of clergy: not a preserver of the old or the sacred, but a creator of the new and the holy. And since meaning needs to embodied and played out through narrative, symbol, and ritual, the new clergy will have to be masters of symbolic play, tellers of great tales, and guides into meaning through ritual acts that allow us to engage the what of science in a way that makes our lives more meaningful, just, and compassionate.

Imagine a seminary where the story of science from the Big Bang to the present moment is part of the curriculum. Where students are taught how to cull the myths, symbols, and rituals of humanity and reshape them in service to meaning even as they are taught to create new myths, symbols, and rituals to do the same. Imagine a seminary where the sacred text is freed from historical fact to reveal meaning–filled, even if temporary, truths.

These won’t be Jewish or Christian seminaries; they won’t bear the labels of one religious brand or another. They will be a new kind of seminary where science will inform the work of meaning making as students learn to draw from the immense storehouse of human religious creativity and tap the even larger well of human imagination and meaning-making capacity.

Just imagine what religious celebration might be like. And as you do, share your thoughts with us here. 


Erick Reynolds said...

Very well said. I have found science to be very good at answering “how?” and “what happens if?”, but it is not always ready to answer “why?”
It appears to me that science and religion converge as humanity moves closer to trying to understand “infinite”. It a word commonly used but impossible to comprehend, either scientifically or spiritually, in this life. But as science probes deeper into infinitely vast outer space and infinitely smaller atomic particles, science is beginning to ask “does matter exist?” Science is about measuring. What happens when you get to the immeasurable?
What does it all MEAN? Or WHY do we exist?

Raksha said...

I know I've said this about previous posts, but this is absolutely one of your best. I have never taken sides in the phony war between science and religion, but if I'm absolutely forced to choose, I have to take the side of science. But I resent being forced into that position in the first place. It's somebody else's war and I don't even know why it should exist. I certainly don't want any part of it. Science and religion are both ways of apprehending reality. And meaning is the specialty of religion as you say.