Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Medium and Message

Our thinking, development, and philosophy as humans continue to evolve. We're understanding more about ourselves and the world around us as time passes and it leads us into new frontiers. Truly, we're a different species than we were three thousand years ago - not just because of environmental adaptions, but because we're challenging our brains to grow and develop in new and remarkable ways.

As we develop, the way we understand and interact with the universe changes. The next step in religious evolution is our understanding the difference between a religion and the truth is claims to mediate. When I say "truth" I'm merely referring to our baseline definition of the universe and how it functions. This might take the form of a traditional religion; it might be science or astrology or attachment to family or any other thing we use to give meaning to the world around us. Religion is the practice of living out those truth claims.

We are truly evolving a new understanding whereby we dissociate the medium of religion from the message it's designed to carry. This comes with some assumption that there is a "truth" out there, some meaning or ground of being that we stand some chance of grasping. All but the most nihilistic of us hold to the reality of this idea. The self-analysis, though, is truly a profound development for religion, because it means forming a religion that hold religion at distance in hopes of embracing a broader, perhaps more mysterious truth.

This is not something we can logic out or rationally capture. It defies the traditional means of modern understanding. That's dangerous for the status quo. This is why you see the rise of fundamentalism parallel almost completely with the rise of post-modern thought. We think of fundamentalism as age-old because it's focus is the fundamental, which we associate with beginning. Ultimately, though, fundamentalism is a recent phenomenon, built specifically (although perhaps reflexively rather than intentionally) to head off this evolution of thinking by inextricably combining medium and message. As people attempt to differentiate religion from its underlying truth, fundamentalism seeks to make those two things inseparable.

It is, at it's core, a power play. Those who control the religion want to continue to control the truth.

As our thought moves beyond this link, I'm afraid the emphasis on fundamentalism will, instead of connecting medium and message, force us to discard one or the other altogether. My big fear is that we'll lose the really vital and important contributions of religious history. While I am in favor of dissecting the difference between medium and message, we must not throw either one away in pursuit of truth. The two must be held together, but held with the proper perspective and tension.

Christianity needs its historic tradition, but it also needs to view that historic tradition with a critical eye to how our knowledge and understanding have changed over time. As the world globalizes, we have to be willing to hold loosely (although not entirely let go of) the reality that Christian tradition is largely a narrow, western-influenced stream of development. It's not that pre-creedal (or a-creedal) developments must be uniformally embraced, but we have to have some recognition that the historic development of various traditions are not necessarily equivalent to the truth of Jesus Christ, but are culturally conditioned (generally in good faith) means of living into that truth.

At the same time, we must guard against the opposite reaction, which ends with each person developing their own medium, their own religion, and by which we lose any real relational connection to each other. We become automatons, living out the truth as we see it and working tirelessly not to step on anyone's toes. We must walk the tightrope between "I'm okay; you're okay" and "I alone understand truth."

I'd argue, in fact, that whatever the real "truth" might happen to be, it cannot be understood without the necessary connection of medium and message. You might say the message is not so much about what one believe, but how one believes. In some roundabout way, instead of the fundamentalist notion of "the medium is the message," we might say the opposite is true - the message is the medium.

Now the distinction there might seem no more than semantic, but the order, in this case, is important. When the medium is the message, the medium is all important. This is traditional fundamentalism: there is one right way to embody truth. It leads to a zero-sum game in which there is only one winner (or, more properly, no winners, but a lot of losers). When the message is the medium, we're constantly forced to revise and amend the way we embody truth to account for the changes in our experience of truth. We must have the religion, the medium, and we must hold each other accountable for a good faith effort to live it out (even if we don't always agree on specifics), but what we cannot do is believe we've arrived. There is no end to that journey - because the message, the truth, is not a destination, but the journey itself.

So this where the danger comes in to play. Fundamentalism has a tendency to drive people away from the notion that medium and message, religion and truth, could possibly be connected. This is what you see in someone like the late Christopher Hitchens, who held that religion is the exact opposite of truth and the real stumbling block to finding it. He took this position, with sound reasoning, because of his experience with fundamentalism, especially how fundamentalism is, so often, the dominant way of understanding life and faith. Atheists are some of the most religious people on Earth.

Traditional atheists have often made the claim that nothing is unique to religion that can't be found without it. When viewed in this "medium is the message" light, that's entirely true. The problem is, though, that their response is to essentially create a new religion built on the same foundation; the medium is still the message, it's just missing God. It becomes its own fundamentalism.

There's a vicious cycle that's played out over time and repeated throughout history.

We've got to be careful to combat any kind of fundamentalism, whether it be Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, Scientific, or Atheist with a profound embodiment of the how. The medium is not the message; the message is the medium. Our ideas are far less influential than the ways we live them out. People will be far more shaped and formed by grace and humility than knowledge and intellect. They will be more moved by openness and honesty than power and persuasion. This is just the way things work.

As we move forward in the world. As we attempt to participate in our communities and congregations, I hope we can step out of this cycle altogether and engage people not with ideas, but with imagination - embodying and exemplifying a way of belief instead of a what.

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