Saturday, June 16, 2007

Chris Duggan on the Meaning of Words

Chris Duggan, described as "Anglican, gardener, writer, lollipop man and former organiser of the Balsall Heath Jungle environmental project in Birmingham", has a very interesting essay in the Guardian's "Face to Faith" column. It discusses the importance of the meaning of words--and how Christians have much to learn from their agnostic and atheist critics:

In a world dominated by Middle East conflicts, it is more urgent than ever that words and creeds emerge from the trenches and dare to divest themselves of the armour that is designed to shore up a reassuring sense of identity, under the guise of religious faith. This process has always been a central concern of the mystical tradition of all the world religions: those who penetrate to the heart of their faith invite their coreligionists to go beyond words and concepts to a level of experience that escapes definition.

It is at this point that the dialogue with atheism and agnosticism begins. Ibn Arabi, a hugely important thinker from medieval Andalusia, where Christian, Jewish and Muslim ideas freely cross-fertilised, preferred al-Haq to any of the other 99 names of God in the Islamic tradition. If this is translated as "the Truth", it sounds like a metaphysical entity. If it is translated as "the Real", or just "reality", transcendence is brought down to earth, where it belongs.

This can spark a train of thought about just what we mean by God, and whether all that believers attach to that loaded word is really the preserve of theism. Is it too much to argue that to speak of God is idolatrous? To avoid the word completely may be impractical for believers, but to hesitate to name what is beyond words is a good discipline. The Jews have long insisted that the letters YHWH that denote God should not be pronounced. I find substituting the word "life" for "God" in religious texts very illuminating.

It is tempting to think that the mystic's "cloud of unknowing" is some transcendental, floaty experience that has nothing to do with the unknowing of the agnostic. And yet the position of the atheist or the agnostic, rejecting any notion of God as a concept that can be defined, has much to teach religious people who think they have the source of everything sussed. So does the inquiring scepticism of a scientist approaching nature with an open mind.

Ibn Arabi is not popular with fundamentalist Muslims, but fundamentalism may be another religion we need to translate from. What are we to make of fundamentalism finding security in its certainty that the opposing camp is wrong? Is there a non-pejorative word for that in the language of pluralism?

An image stays in my mind of Richard Dawkins, a high priest of fundamentalist atheism, in his documentary The Root of All Evil? He could have been a sixth-century Celtic monk as he flung his arms wide in a wilderness to bear witness to what some might call the glory of creation. Do we dare translate "Creator God" to "the big bang" or "evolution" and back again, to see what might be lost - or found - in translation?


Read it all.

2 comments:

The Exterminator said...

Chuck:

I realize that the main body of the post is a quote, and not your words. However, I think you should strive to dissociate yourself from nonsensical terms like "fundamentalist atheism." It's completely meaningless, an underhanded way of trying somehow to compare the excesses of fundamentalist religions with atheism. We nonbelievers, however, have no single "infallible" book, no supernaturally pronounced truth, and no set of god-given rules -- in short, no fundamentals -- to which we adhere. The only "fundamental" of atheism is a lack of god-belief, which, after all, is built into the definition of the word: a-theism.

Chuck Blanchard said...

Exterminator:

I take and accept your point. You have already convinced me to stop using the words militant and fundamentalists myself to describe Dawkins et al. To be fair to Duggan, however, his larger point is that Christians need to learn from atheists and agnostics. I suspect that he used the phrase fundamentalist atheism only because the audience for this column consists of beleivers.