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Life After Death

I believe there is a place for enlightenment in the living world. Enlightenment to me is knowing myself spiritually and knowing and loving God and Jesus. It is this acceptance that opens you the hidden world which surrounds us as we speak. The path to enlightenment begins by glorifying God and not self glory. In the end power and self glory are mere dust and can do more damage to your soul than good. Be giving and live in love, mercy and happiness.


Fair enough but I am using the term "Enlightenment" in the historical sense. The secular philosophers who promoted the religion of the Englightenment according to Becker included Voltaire and Hume.

Alan Lenzi

"It is false because religion is, perhaps first and foremost, a response to worship-eliciting transcendence."

The ghosts of Eliade and Otto continue to haunt your (anti-reductionistic and thus implicitly theological) understanding of religion, John. What is necessary in an anthropological/social-scientific approach to religion is to understand why humans posit/feel transcendence. The way forward to answering this, in my opinion, lies in cognition and psychology not in question begging theological claims.


Hi Alan,

I was trying *not* to beg any questions.

Transcendence is a datum, a phenomenological reality. There are realities which transcend us and evoke the kind of responses which Otto among others describes.

Some people, a small minority, believe that there are no sentient beings in the universe except human beings and other animals who live and die and that's it. Presumably that is your belief.

But if that is not the view of the Mesopotamians one is studying, whose views one desires to contrast with those of the Israelites perhaps, or one's own, isn't it better to start with emic rather than etic language in description?

At one or two removes, one is then free to be as reductionist or even insulting as one wishes.

By contrastive approach, I mean the approach of the following classic:

Jacob J. Finkelstein, “The West, the Bible and the Ancient East: Apperceptions and Categorisations”, Man 9 (1974) 591-608

Alan Lenzi

"Phenomenological reality" means that something has the appearance of reality to those involved. It does not address what is "really real." Transcendence is a phenomenological datum to be explained not a true reality to be assumed. Methodological atheism requires that, if one is going to abide by the accepted rules of academic discourse (rooted in the Enlightenment!). Even if I did believe in a god, I would not assume that belief as part of my social-scientific interpretation of a religious movement. I would root my explanation firmly within the terrestrial realm, within the data generated by what people do, say, and believe. When I have a feeling of transcendence, the appropriate question to ask from an social-scientific or anthropological point of view is NOT what transcendent being is behind this feeling, rather what mechanisms in me produce this feeling (which may include the phenomenological observation that demons, gods, etc. exist for me and generate such feelings).

About the etic vs. emic stuff: As far as I can tell we all MUST approach most religious data in etic terms quite simply because we cannot be adherents to all religions every where at all times. As we describe, we will want to refine our etic categories in terms of the emic data, but ultimately all non-theological descriptions and interpretations of religions will be etic in nature (despite attempts and protests to the contrary). It can't be otherwise, even for those who go native. We can NEVER replicate the insider's perspective, especially at chronological distance. The best we can do is to approximate it in our descriptions and do it justice in our (etic) interpretations. This also means, I think, that all interpretations are by their very nature reductionistic. To allow a mysterious "something" (e.g., the assumption of transcendence) to haunt one's social-scientific understanding of religion is to make a theological assumption that has its rightful place only in the devotee's theological explanation.

I'll have to send you the opening couple of sections of my reading Akkadian prayers Intro. It lays out some of these ideas briefly and shows why an initial emic view of Akkadian prayer is impossible.


Thanks, Alan, for the conversation.

You say: "Phenomenological reality" means that something has the appearance of reality to those involved. It does not address what is "really real." Transcendence is a phenomenological datum to be explained not a true reality to be assumed.

End quote. Absolutely. I agree. That is why I deploy that language.

The principle of "methodological atheism" on the other hand is not an accepted axiom among researchers in a wide range of fields.

I have mentioned the field of Buddhist studies before; at the UW-Madison, an acknowledged strength of the offered program is that it is taught by and large by believing Buddhists. This is a feature, not a bug.

The fields of psychology, anthropology, history of religions, the study of particular literatures which make very large truth claims including the Bible and the Quran, the study of philosophy, theology, and even a recondite discipline like theoretical physics, all of these fields of inquiry count among their most distinguished practitioners those who make assumptions or test hypotheses which are not neutral on the God-question. Still other researchers make a point of bracketing out of consideration atheism with just as much methodological fervor as theism.

A few current rock stars in the sciences take a rigorously atheistic approach to research. Steven Pinker, for example. But then one is left with a long list of imponderables:

A boring and impractical solution for most. Most researchers covertly introduce (often unconsciously) metaphysical assumptions into their research to make it of greater interest. The closer one gets to the field of theology in the ladder of the sciences, the more obvious this is.

In sociology, think Durkheim but also Geertz; in psychology; think Freud and Skinner. Other researchers are not as top-heavy in terms of theory but are more concerned with epistemological questions: think Mary Douglas (who went on however to build systems herself) and Catherine Bell. In the history of religions, think Ninian Smart, but he too has a system to propose. It's just not as esoteric as that of Otto or Eliade.

You are welcome to stand up for the heavenly city of the secular philosophers and the religion of the Enlightenment, no matter how clearly both appear to be falsified by facts on the ground.

But the suggestion that those of us who don't buy that framework must nonetheless fall in line is bewildering.

How far do you want to take this? Castro in Cuba forbade Christians from being teachers. It is not that that you are after, I realize; perhaps you just want all religions banned in the classroom except the religion of the Enlightenment. That sounds arrogant, too.

I am a fan of reductionist approaches to reality. It is a huge plus of any discipline when it can explain a given sequence of events entirely within its framework without reference to other frameworks. Physics, chemistry, and biology, but also: psychology, philosophy, and theology.

Still, interdisciplinary research is of great interest. Not just biophysics and biochemistry, but also the interface between psychology, clinical psychology, and religious concepts such as forgiveness - Robert Enright's Forgiveness Institute at the UW-Madison is the fruit of an interdisciplinary approach of this kind.

Etic vs. emic. No, I don't think we understand each other. The distinction goes back to Kenneth Pike and is based on the distinction between phonetics and phonemes.

It is actually a waste of time to try to learn a language on the basic of etics i.e. phones. The best way is to take the language's organization of disparate phonetic realities as one's point of departure.

One's mother tongue will have x number of phonemes; the language one is learning, y number of phonemes; in terms of raw phonetic data, each set of phonemes is mappable onto an objective phonic continuum. Only students of pure phonetics even bother.

It's important to know that the system of pure and common in Leviticus, for example, is an emic system, that the sacrificial systems of both ancient and modern (Rene Girard) cultures are emic in nature.

It is essential to know that every culture, not just ancient cultures, follow particular dietary codes, embody routinized mechanisms of scapegoating and expiation, and, in accord with Bruce Lincoln's research, depend on myths ("ideology in narrative form").

But the suggestion that scholars have access to the terms of the etic that underly the competing systems referred to above - that is an ambitious and to my mind admirable goal to pursue. But we are not anywhere near attaining that goal.

I look forward to looking at your prayers intro. The study of prayer by social scientists and psychologists is of intense interest. If I'm not mistaken, in classics there is some excellent multi-disciplinary research available now on the prayers and responses to prayer found for example in the Iliad and the Odyssey. I think that is also the case in the study of bhakti Hinduism. Assyriologists and scholars of biblical literature need to wake up and smell the coffee.

It is possible to exegete these texts on their own terms to a relatively large extent within a cross-cultural anthropological framework. In the first instance, this is preferable to imposing on either Akkadian or biblical prayers schema from later reductionistic systems, Jewish, Christian, or atheist in origin. I am not against any of the latter. But they should be seen for what they are: metanarratives.

Alan Lenzi

This is why I refrain from commenting very often here anymore. We really don't see eye to eye. You eviscerate the term religion in your last response. I've already spent too much time thinking about how to respond, and each attempt (false start), I realized, would only lead to a more protracted discussion, something I'm not so keen to invest the time on. Sometime we'll have to sit down face to face and talk.

I will, however, address the etic vs. emic thing. I know the terms originated with Pike. But others have used the terms in different ways. Many people use them in terms of insider vs. outsider (a more relativistic use than Pike's). That's the way I was using it. No matter how much we try, we NEVER gain an insider's perspective "as it really is" when we study another group. The same is true with language learning. One's native language is so ingrained that rarely does a person learn a non-native language without an accent. The only exceptions are very, very gifted language learners and the very young. I'd say our situation in cultural study is much more dire. NO outsider, if they remain an outsider, learns to understand another group completely like an insider, even if the outsider studies with Buddhist believers. We must translate what we see into recognizable categories, which will certainly lead to some reductions, etc. It's the nature of things, I think.

As for the intro, you will no doubt be disappointed that I did not go a more interdisciplinary route. I had thought about it, but the Intro would have been over 100 pages. It would have been inappropriate in this volume.



I look forward to reading your intro.

I remain convinced that there is no one way of studying religion or any other subject matter.

That has always been the essence of my response to your call for methodological atheism. Why you would characterize said response as an evisceration of religion is obscure at best - not only to me, I think, but to anyone who reads this thread.

"Methodological atheism" has come under fire from a variety of points of views. It is an empty suit in the field of public discourse, as Steven D. Smith has shown. It is self-emasculating in terms of the questions it is able to address, as Marilynne Robinson has shown in her discussion of Steven Pinker and others like him.

The Enlightenment critique of religion is not compelling, as Terry Eagleton and many others have shown.

On the other hand, religion benefits greatly from its critics, the fiercest of which have always belonged to its own ranks.

Sooner or later methodological atheists will have to come to grips with challenges to their own positions.

Once upon a time it may have been possible to dismiss the arguments of Wolterstorff and other Christian philosophers who saw how reason normally functions within the bounds of religion of some kind.

But we live in a post-modern age. After Foucault and others, it just isn't possible to take the religion of the Enlightenment for granted. It, too, is or should be subject to criticism. It cannot be said to have escaped the process unscathed.

Alan Lenzi

John, of course there is no one way to study religion. But I remain convinced that some ways are better than others, especially if we are talking about a pluralistic university setting (my primary concern).

Why you eviscerate the term religion? Simply put I don't believe general Enlightenment values comprise a religion. If they do, you're in the fold, too, since you use most of those same values! You love to call the Enlightenment values a religion, I think, because it rhetorically puts secular humanism on par with "religion." But using "religion" in such a way seems equivocal and inappropriate to me. Yes, there were some philosophes who invented a Religion of Reason, but many were rather embarrassed by that. Yes, some were Deists, hardly a religious position---more like a philosophical one. But others were atheists who generally eschewed metaphysics (see Voltaire's famous line at the end of Candide: "but we must cultivate our garden"). This variety of positions do not comprise an "Enlightenment religion," especially when there is no divine being or concern for the transcendent involved. (I realize that some rather short-sighted humanists looking for legal protection got Secular Humanism recognized as a religion in the late 50's but that is not really relevant here.) Furthermore, a metanarrative is not equal to a religion, which are two things you tend to equate. Thus my earlier comments.

By the way, I think post-modernism has made some good points but many of us are moving on to more constructive positions with greater self-awareness (thanks to post-modernists). And let's be honest: a good Christian can't really be a "real" post-modernist because a good Christian presupposes an objective truth "out there." So can we stop pretending that post-modernism serves Christianity?

Methodological atheism is an important control against theological tendencies to man-handle evidence in the academy. That's where methodological atheism is appropriate, in the academy. One is free to say whatever crazy thing one wishes about god or the transcendent realm, etc. in public discourse. And people do! I'm not for silencing that. But I'm also not for insulating said statements from criticism or ridicule! My concern here is with the classroom and the academy, where we are supposed to be based in evidence and use "inference to the best explanation" as our best reasoning tool. And since this post is apparently outlining a class at a pluralistic university, your characterization of reductionism above and the assumption of transcendence (which came across as normative and not descriptive, though perhaps that's what you meant) is problematic in my opinion. You seemed to overstep. And that's the initial reason I got involved here.

Anyway, I'll send that Intro eventually. Oh, btw, Eagleton is on my summer reading list.

Alan Lenzi

I just recalled that Becker is the one who calls the Enlightenment a religion in your original post, which you then pick up on. But how is his use of the term appropriate? Look at those four characteristics. Are any of these oriented toward a deity, a transcendent realm, worship, ritual, prayer, life beyond, eternal reward/punishment? The fact that the philosophes were railing against the ecclesial powers of their day in a near fanatical manner, risking life, limb, and fortune, does not make their alternative ideas about humanity and epistemology (those constructed in reaction to the dogmatic views of Christians) "religious."


Great conversation, Alan.

With respect to methodological concerns, between us we have weaved a web of agreements and disagreements. I would stress an agreement at this point: the control value of what you call methodological atheism.

Since I am a theist, I see protest atheism in particular as a tonic to belief and have said as much over and over again on this blog and in the classroom, in a seminary setting no less than in a state university context.

I would put matters this way: what is truly unscientific (i.e. lacking in epistemological humility) is the essentially apologetic stance. I identify such a stance, in any field of knowledge, with unbelief. I don't mean that as a compliment.

I am asking you to put epistemological humility and true belief in the same basket, something that few people do and even fewer people embody -though I think Heschel did. Then again, truth has never been about a prevailing consensus.

Without wanting to prejudge anyone, my judgment that an essentially apologetic stance is unscientific is why we might have similar opinions about the approach of some of your former teachers at Westminster.

Putative knowledge requires testing. For example, I don't see how one can consider oneself a Jewish intellectual or a Christian intellectual if one has not worked through the Holocaust - yes, from the outside, but the attempt to see ourselves as others see us, the attempt to walk in someone else's shoes, are essential tasks of cultivating humanity (Martha Nussbaum).

This however leads to unexpected intellectual and existential quandaries. Such as, if I am tempted as an outsider to give up faith in the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob in the wake of the Holocaust, I am restrained from doing so given Viktor Frankl, Emmanuel Levinas, and Elie Wiesel who didn't. If insiders did not, on what basis do I as an outsider draw opposite conclusions?

I am simplifying greatly. I could just as well take the example and turn it on its head. But my point would still stand.

Jewish and Christian intellectuals also do well to engage with someone like Nietzsche - a truly great atheist - deeply, not superficially.

Finally, the atheism a Christian writer like Dostoevsky brought to expression is of enduring interest and stands in the long tradition of protest against God that finds expression in the Bible - and Ludlul.

Without that a-theism, that is, without that experience of abandonment by God and of a failure of God's justice, we are left with a sub-Jewish and sub-Christian faith. No matter how frequent among Jews and Christians, it is still not the real McCoy.

So is secular humanism a religion? At the very least, one has to admit that it is a wannabe religion. Some of the most fervent atheists and proponents of the Enlightenment have conceived of their metanarrative as the basis for a(n anti-) religion.

My social location will always be Madison WI where I grew up. There the freedom from religion people meet to hear a sermon every week, take donations, and engage in crusades. Steven Pinker once gave a sermon in their hall. He was able to turn around and publish it in a peer-reviewed scientific journal. But that is not really so strange. Many presidential addresses at SBL come across as sermons. I really really enjoyed the one by Jonathan Z. Smith.

Still, I would agree with you. A metanarrative and a penchant for sermonizing do not a religion make. The religion of the Enlightenment is a poor substitute for a full-orbed religion in the traditional sense.

But it is still important to start with people's self-identifications and the projects they wish to realize. Carl Becker knowingly engaged in religious discourse in his rightfully famous Yale lectures. So did many 18th century philosophers. They wanted very much to construct an interdisciplinary master narrative to rival that of traditional Judaism and Christianity. They would have loved to construct temples of their own, and sometimes did.

Finally, many atheists and agnostics have thought of the state or the university or both as alternative temples to those of traditional religions. Am I developing false analogies? Maybe, but what would one of your vaunted outsiders say?

I also concur that post-modernism is not an argument for Christianity. On the contrary, it serves to call into question the truth claims of both Christianity and the Enlightenment. In my experience, that does seem to bother those for whom the Enlightenment is a religion in the sense it was for Carl Becker.

Alan  Lenzi

John, I always learn something when I correspond with you. Of course, the conversation can sometimes also be quite frustrating! I guess I keep coming back because I know it is important to talk to people with whom I have deep differences. Thanks for an engaging, civil, and intelligent discussion.

Chariots of Fire 5

I agree with Life After Death’s comment, “In the end power and self glory are mere dust and can do more damage to your soul than good.” Life should be about doing God’s work and not about the power you have.

All my life I was taught that God is perfect and we need to live our lives with Him in consideration. Now I do not believe that He is necessarily “perfect” but I still believe it’s important to live your life as best you can for God. He gave up his only son for us and we should make our lives worth it.

Chariots Of Fire 1

I love the song, "Awesome God" by Michael W. Smith. The first part of the topic reminded me of his song. It's a classic!

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    Michael Patton and company don't just think outside the box. They are tearing down its walls.
  • Pisteuomen
    by Michael Halcomb, pastor-scholar from the Bluegrass State
  • Pseudo-Polymath
    by Mark Olson, an Orthodox view on things
  • Purging my soul . . . one blog at a time
    great theoblog by Sam Nunnally
  • Qumranica
    weblog for a course on the Dead Sea Scrolls at the University of St. Andrews, Scotland, taught by James R. Davila (archive)
  • Ralph the Sacred River
    by Edward Cook, a superb Aramaist
  • Random Bloggings
    by Calvin Park, M. Div. student at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton MA
  • Resident aliens
    reflections of one not at home in this world
  • Revelation is Real
    Strong-minded comment from Tony Siew, lecturer at Trinity Theological College, Singapore
  • Ricoblog
    by Rick Brannan, it's the baby pictures I like the most
  • Rightly Dividing the Word of Truth
    Nick Norelli's fabulous blog on Bible and theology
  • SansBlogue
    by Tim Bulkeley, lecturer in Old Testament, Carey Baptist College (New Zealand). His Hypertext Commentary on Amos is an interesting experiment
  • Ancient Near Eastern Languages
    texts and files to help people learn some ancient languages in self study, by Mike Heiser
  • Midrash, etc.
    A fine Hebrew-to-English blog on Midrash, by Carl Kinbar, Director of the New School for Jewish Studies and a facultm member at MJTI School of Jewish Studies.
  • Phil Lembo what I'm thinking
    a recovering lawyer, now in IT, with a passion for a faith worth living
  • Roses and Razorwire
    a top-notch Levantine archaeology blog, by Owen Chesnut, a doctoral student at Andrews University (MI)
  • Scripture & Theology
    a communal weblog dedicated to the intersection of biblical interpretation and the articulation of church doctrine, by Daniel Driver, Phil Sumpter, and others
  • Scripture Zealot
    by Jeff Contrast
  • Serving the Word
    incisive comment on the Hebrew Bible and related ancient matters, with special attention to problems of philology and linguistic anthropology, by Seth L. Sanders, Assistant Professor in the Religion Department of Trinity College, Hartford, CT
  • Singing in the Reign
    NT blog by Michael Barber (JP University) and Brad Pitre (Our Lady Holy Cross)
  • Stay Curious
    excellent comment on Hebrew Bible and Hebrew language topics, by Karyn Traphagen, graduate, Westminster Theological Seminary, Philadelphia PA (archive)
  • Sufficiency
    A personal take on the faith delivered to the saints, by Bob MacDonald, whose parallel blog on the Psalms in Hebrew is a colorful and innovative experiment
  • The Sundry Times
    Gary Zimmerli's place, with comment on Bible translations and church renewal
  • Sunestauromai: living the crucified life
    by a scholar-pastor based in the Grand Canyon National Park
  • ta biblia
    blog dedicated to the New Testament and the history of Christian origins, by Giovanni Bazzana
  • Targuman
    by Christian Brady, targum specialist extraordinaire, and dean of Schreyer Honors College, Penn State University
  • Targuman
    on biblical and rabbinic literature, Christian theology, gadgetry, photography, and the odd comic, by Christian Brady, associate professor of ancient Hebrew and Jewish literature and dean of the Schreyer Honors College at Penn State
  • The Biblia Hebraica Blog
    a blog about Hebrew Bible/Old Testament, the history of the Ancient Near East and the classical world, Syro-Palestinian archaeology, early Judaism, early Christianity, New Testament interpretation, English Bible translations, biblical theology, religion and culture, philosophy, science fiction, and anything else relevant to the study of the Bible, by Douglas Magnum, PhD candidate, University of the Free State, South Africa
  • The Forbidden Gospels Blog
    by April DeConick, Professor of Biblical Studies, Rice University
  • The Naked Bible
    by Mike Heiser, academic editor at Logos Bible Software
  • The Reformed Reader
    by Andrew Compton, Ph.D. student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Cultures (focus on Hebrew and Semitic Languages) at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)
  • The Sacred Page
    a blog written by three Catholic Ph.D.s who are professors of Scripture and Theology: Michael Barber, Brant Pitre and John Bergsma
  • The Talmud Blog
    a group blog on Talmud News, Reviews, Culture, Currents, and Criticism
  • Theological German
    a site for reading and discussing theological German, by Mark Alter
  • theoutwardquest
    seeking spirituality as an outward, not an inward quest, by David Corder
  • This Lamp
    Incisive comment on Bible translations in the archives, by Rick Mansfield
  • Thoughts on Antiquity
    By Chris Weimer and friends, posts of interest on ancient Greek and Roman topics (archive). Chris is a graduate student at the City University of New York in Classics
  • Threads from Henry's Web
    Wide-ranging comment by Henry Neufeld, educator, publisher, and author
  • Tête-à-Tête-Tête
    smart commentary by "smijer," a Unitarian-Universalist
  • Undeception
    A great blog by Mike Douglas, a graduate student in biblical studies
  • What I Learned From Aristotle
    the Judaica posts are informative (archive)
  • Bouncing into Graceland
    a delightful blog on biblical and theological themes, by Esteban Vázquez (archive)
  • Weblog
    by Justin Anthony Knapp, a fearless Wikipedian (archive)
  • Writing in the Dust
    A collection of quotes by Wesley Hill, a doctoral student in New Testament studies at Durham University (UK), and a Christian who seeks the charism of chastity
  • גֵּר־וְתוֹשָׁב
    by David Miller, Associate Professor of New Testament and Early Judaism, Briercrest College & Seminary, Caronport, Saskatchewan, Canada
  • ואל-תמכר
    Buy truth and do not sell: wisdom, instruction, and understanding - a blog by Mitchell Powell, student of life at the intersection of Christ, Christianity, and Christendom
  • משלי אדם
    exploring wisdom literature, religion, and other academic pursuits, by Adam Couturier, M.A. in Old Testament/Hebrew Bible (graduate of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary)

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  • Ancient Hebrew Poetry is a weblog of John F. Hobbins. Opinions expressed herein do not reflect those of his professional affiliations. Unless otherwise indicated, the contents of Ancient Hebrew Poetry, including all text, images, and other media, are original and licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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