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From Materialism to Miracles: Connections and Contradictions

From Materialism to Miracles: Connections and Contradictions

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Published by Lloyd Graham
A philosophical essay comparing and reconciling scientific rationalism with morality and religious belief.
A philosophical essay comparing and reconciling scientific rationalism with morality and religious belief.

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Published by: Lloyd Graham on May 26, 2009
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09/27/2011

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From Materialism to Miracles: Connections and ContradictionsLloyd D. Graham
The worlds of scientific materialism and religious belief are usually regarded as oppositeextremes of the philosophical spectrum. An attempt to journey from one to the other, ineither direction, is seldom made, but it is not impossible to traverse the barriers whichtraditionally separate the multiplicity of world-views, both secular and religious, withinthis spectrum. While the method I will adopt may be criticized for avoiding rather thanovercoming these divisions, the result may nevertheless be interesting and instructive. Itis in the hope of highlighting internal contradictions within, and constructive resonances between, the many traditions of thought and belief that this wide-ranging account isoffered.Recent advances in understanding the ways in which natural selection operates
 and the level at which it operates
have provided plausible explanations for much, if notall, of what is observed in the biological world. Thus, an organism is best considered as asurvival machine built solely in order to further the propagation of its genetic alleles, or 'selfish genes'. In population biology, kin selection and reciprocal altruism emerge aswinning sociobiological strategies for such organisms [1]. Such rationalizations must, of course, apply in turn to mankind, and it is therefore logical to conclude that all humanimpulses towards altruistic behavior have arisen simply as a matter of evolutionaryexpedience. On a personal level, this conclusion may easily lead to a cynical approachto life.In opposition to this school of thought stands the somewhat old-fashioned notionof 'Natural Law'; that is, the doctrine of an objective framework of propriety, of right andwrong
a fundamental law which rates selfish motives as evil, and insists upon altruism.To the sociobiologist, this viewpoint amounts to no more than a profoundmisunderstanding of the situation. It is true that the moralist's position is normally propounded as requiring a leap of faith
a leap which, whatever its emotional appeal,seems unnecessary and intellectually dishonest to the objective sociobiologist. The latter is only prepared to consider rational argument; unhappily, science uses exclusively theindicative mood whereas morality uses the imperative, and no amount of reasoning canderive an imperative from an indicative.Inherent in the cynicism arising from the sociobiological world-view describedabove is the assumption that if altruistic motivations can be explained genetically, thenany concept of altruism possessing intrinsic merit becomes meaningless. This need not be so, however; just as no amount of reasoning can derive an imperative from anindicative, neither can any amount of reasoning deny such an imperative its meaning.The idea of a 'Natural Law' may no longer be necessary to rationalize the human perception of right and wrong, but that does not mean that the emergence of a moralsense is without some further significance. Science cannot pronounce on spiritualmatters, which, like the fundamental mystery of existence itself, lie beyond its scope.
 
 The silence of science on the central issue of what, if anything, is demanded of the individual in life can be seen as an intellectual vacuum which permits completefreedom of speculation. Interpretations ranging from absolute nihilism to the mostcomplex and demanding dogmas have flourished: this is the domain of faith and religion.It is inevitable that an individual's religious commitment will reflect his or her  psychological profile and cultural environment. It also seems likely that any religioussense instilled during childhood will continue to influence the adult. However, if we can bring ourselves to forget, or at least suspend, all our preconceived notions about God, weare left with a definition
as opposed to a description or characterization
of God as the'deepest, veriest truth about the structure of reality, the ultimate meaning and significanceof existence at the deepest level of its mystery' [2]. In the relatively fresh terms of whatis generally called radical theology, a movement within the Christian tradition, God is best understood as the ground of our, and of all, being [3]. This is not to relocate thesuperbeing of traditional Western theism
the omnipotent deity-persona inhabiting some parallel supernatural realm
but to resist it, in deference to modern psychology, as ananthropomorphic projection [4]. This position is actually closer to the Easternunderstanding of God. One is reminded of the sage of the Hindu Upanishads who, whenasked for a definition of God, remains silent, meaning that God is silence; when asked toexpress his God in words, he says ‘
 Neti, Neti
’ ('Not this, Not this'), meaning God is notthe sensory world; but when pressed for a positive explanation, utters the simple words
Tat Tvam Asi
('That Thou Art') [5]. Or, in a saying more familiar to us in the Westernworld, 'The Kingdom of God is within you' (Luke 17.21) [6].Those who seek the absolute, the ultimate and the eternal usually envisagesomething beyond this world. However, the statements above contradict this, their declaration being one of immanence. Moreover, to understand the mystical term 'eternal'merely to signify an infinitely long existence must surely be naive. In contrast, it is hardto find a more meaningful interpretation of the term than Alan Watts' one
drawn fromZen Buddhism
of full absorption into the now, the present, the finite moment. This blatantly immediate view actually affords a real escape from time: wanting to prolong a particular moment is merely the result of being self-conscious in the experience, andhence incompletely aware of it [7]. True awareness, on the other hand, occurs when theobserver is totally preoccupied with what he/she observes, to the extent where he/sheforgets their identity as beholder and is only aware of what is beheld. However, sinceselflessness in any relationship is the hallmark of love, it seems reasonable to supposethat the relationship of true awareness is one of love between the beholder and the beheld.Taking this idea to its natural conclusion, love may be considered as the true ground of all awareness. But if 
as affirmed above
God is the ground of all being, these two postulates need to be reconciled by a simple resolution: that God is love.This, of course, has been the essential message of the prophets, evangelists andsages through the ages, although their inspiration derived from revelation rather thanspeculative analysis. The Christian apostle John is perhaps the most forthright: 'He whodoes not love does not know God, for God is love' (1 John 4.8). As John Robinson putsit, ‘it is precisely his thesis that our convictions of love and its ultimacy are not
 
 projections from human love; rather, our sense of the sacredness of love derives from thefact that in this relationship as nowhere else is disclosed and laid bare the divine groundof all our being. And this revelation for St. John finds its focus and final vindication inthe fact of Jesus Christ ... It is in Jesus, and Jesus alone, that there is nothing of self to beseen, but solely the ultimate, unconditional love of God’ [8].To attest of Jesus that ‘there is nothing of self to be seen’ recapitulates what wassuggested above about the relationship between selflessness and love. But the idea of selflessness is also central to the great Eastern religions, Hinduism and Buddhism. In thelife of the Buddha, his enlightenment is explained solely in the following words: 'Fromthe summit of the world he could detect no self anywhere ... He had reached perfection'(Legend of the Buddha Shakyamuni)[9]. In the Hindu Upanishads, the principal theme is'When all desires that cling to the heart are surrendered, then a mortal becomes immortal,and even in this world he becomes one with God' (Katha Upanishad) ... 'Whenever thesoul has thoughts of "I" and "mine" it binds itself, even as a bird with the net of a snare'(Maitri Upanishad). Such aspirations are not far from those expressed by Jesus, whoissued such challenges as 'Anyone who wishes to be a follower of mine must leave self  behind; he must take up his cross, and come with me' (Mark 8.34). Selflessness, it wouldappear, is the way, the truth and the life, the love in which we encounter the ground of all being, God. The imperative is unconditional: 'Love your enemies, do good to those thathate you' (Luke 6.27). Here is anything but silence on what is demanded of theindividual in life!Many people feel that their partisan affiliation to a particular revelationarytradition is vindicated by the miraculous events attending the revelation, and this is particularly so with Christianity. However, I think it is fair to say that to insist upon, or indeed argue from the supernatural or magical elements of the scriptures is a perversedisplacement of emphasis. In basing faith upon such things, a Christian stands accused by Jesus himself, who sighs deeply and says 'Why does this generation ask for a sign? Itell you this: no sign shall be given to this generation' (Mark 8.12). It is also necessary torecall that Jesus acknowledges miracles of his opponents: 'And if it is by Beelzebub that Icast out devils, by whom do your own people drive them out?' (Matthew 12.27), and'Imposters will come claiming to be messiahs and prophets, and they will produce signsand wonders...' (Mark13.22). New Testament references to Simon Magus (Acts 6.9-10)and Bar-Jesus (Acts 13.6), for example, confirm that attribution of supernatural omagical power is no guarantee of divine sanction. All religions that have so desired havehad their miracles, as the study of comparative mythology reveals, and many of themiraculous formulae in the Gospels
the virgin birth, baptism in Jordan, temptation inthe wilderness, the healing and nature miracles
can be rather convincingly related tosymbolic supernatural motifs found in other religions and legends [10]. To contend thatthe supernatural embroidery of historical fabric was a commonplace device, reflecting thementality of the times and designed to highlight the importance of the history, seemsmost reasonable in the light of modern scholarship. The Gnostic Gospels showadmirably what happens when such embroidery is carried to excess. Philosophically, torely upon supernatural manifestations as a way to faith is pure short-sightedness. As theOxbridge polymath Juan Mascaro elaborates: 'Those who rely on physical miracles to

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