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Meaning without metaphysics

Meaning without metaphysics

James Faulconer, Professor of Religious Understanding at Brigham Young University writes “beliefs, theological or otherwise, don’t have a special, more fundamental place in their relationship with the other parts of religious life and experience” at Patheos:

It’s a common assumption that religious meanings, whether in words, covenants, or rites, must have a metaphysical structure, such as a theology, behind them. Without that, supposedly, they don’t mean anything. But since early in the 19th century, philosophers have questioned that assumption. That questioning reached a peak in the 20th century and has become a commonplace. Religious words and events cannot have meaning on their own, all by themselves, to be sure. But the question is whether they require a theology and, with many others, I think the answer is no.

First consider a counterexample from religion, Judaism. It has survived for thousands of years and seems not to have a particular theology. It goes without saying that I am not an expert on Judaism, so what I say should be read with some skepticism. That said, however, it seems that to be a Jew is not necessarily to believe certain propositions or to have a particular theology. It is to be related to the world in a particular way or a set of ways. That involves history and outlook, community with certain others, and a host of other things. Probably not all of the elements of what it means to be a Jew can be specified. But—thank God—we have Jews nevertheless, and without a Jewish theology. Howard Wettstein has discussed the point quite nicely in his The Significance of Religious Experience. In this regard Mormons are more like Jews than they are like most other Christians.

Religion is about living in the world in a certain way, seeing it differently, experiencing it differently. It entails beliefs, but it is a matter of beliefs, ways of acting, communal expectations, covenants, rites, and so on fitting together into a context that forms the background of an entire life (a “form of life” Wittgenstein calls it—Philosophical Investigations, section 19). No one of these is fundamental to the others. Religious beliefs, practices, and acts each have meaning against the background of and within the web they form. Together they are the meaning-context for religious life. Beliefs, theological or otherwise, don’t have a special, more fundamental place in their relationship with the other parts of religious life and experience. They are part of a whole, and to be a religious person is to live within that whole.

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Gary Gilbert

Some people are better off without theology and prefer ethics, which is generally more practical. One can judge an act to be evil, to be avoided in most circumstances, without getting into a metaphysical question of whether Evil as such exists.

Gary Paul Gilbert

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Gary Gilbert

Some people are better off without theology and prefer ethics, which is generally more practical. One can judge an act to be evil, to be avoided in most circumstances, without getting into a metaphysical question of whether Evil as such exists.

Gary Paul Gilbert

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tobias haller

On second thought, reading through this once again, it begins to sound a bit like a person who has lost his "faith" but is still trying to find a rationale for "going through the motions."

In other words, is this just one more chapter in the ongoing faith vs works dichotomy.

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tobias haller

I find this confusing. It all depends on what is meant by "metaphysics" and "theology." Even atheism is a "theological" position! And while I don't know enough about the Mormons to speak on it, to suggest that Judaism is lacking in the "theology" department; or that it is just about doing certain things in certain ways. Behind the halacha there is a great "Why" -- and once you move from action to "reason for action" you have moved from physics into metaphysics; and where God is involved, either by affirmation or rejection, you are doing theology.

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Gary Gilbert

I agree that theology is optional. Religion is also ethics, what people do.

Gary Paul Gilbert

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