Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Truth, Religion, and the Voice of God

We all speak a failing language. "Every concept originates through our equating what is unequal," wrote Nietzsche in his On Truth and Lies in an Extra-Moral Sense. For an example of what he means, think of the word "cat." There is nothing about the word itself that gives us meaning. It is only because we have been taught that the combination of lines or sounds that represent that word are intended to signify our concept of a cat. Of course, there are an infinite variety of cats-- the cat that I think of when I hear the word is different from the cat you are thinking of. The same problem exists with colors. I could be seeing the world through completely different eyes and would never be able to communicate that; my blue may be your green, but since birth I was taught that what you see as green is really called "blue." We would both say the sky is blue while looking at completely different colors. 

Friedrich Nietzsche
Nietzsche claims that our attempts to categorize the world into something like language also compromise the integrity of the subjects. "We obtain the concept, as we do the form, by overlooking what is individual and actual; whereas nature is acquainted with no forms and no concepts, and likewise with no species, but only with an X which remains inaccessible and undefinable for us."

Obviously these are small issues and life goes on. For Nietzsche, however, the problem spreads into bigger areas, namely the realm of truth: "truths are illusions about which one has forgotten that this is what they are; metaphors which are worn out and without sensuous power; coins which have lost their pictures and now matter only as metal, no longer as coins." Nietzsche's argument is that even if universal truth where to exist, language would be unable to communicate it.

While I feel that universal truth does exist, I agree with Nietzsche's claims about language. I agree that humans are incapable of perfectly communicating with each other. 

This has troubling implications in a lot of areas of life, but most importantly with religion. The fact is when someone says "God is like..." they are immediately constructing a failing metaphor, but a metaphor that is necessary. This is especially true with the truths that religion tries to teach, because they are often grand, abstract, and border on incomprehensible. Because of this, nobody will ever be able to successfully teach another man who God is. Spiritual experience is too personal. Any attempt at communicating it with others is an attempt at "equating what is unequal." This is how it should be-- if each of us is truly unique, than in order for God to have truly personal interactions with us it is required that each experience is also unique. 

Rodin's "The Thinker"
What function, then, does religion have? Are we a large group of people aimlessly attempting to agree with each other and trying to fool ourselves into thinking that subjective truths are really objective ones? To some extent I am worried that this is the case. When church functions merely as a social facilitator, as an abstract code of ethics, or a type of psychosis, it is as Karl Marx described it to be-- "an opiate of the masses," a numbing agent. Effective religion requires that each individual comes to know God for himself, deeply and personally, and can only rely so much on what others teach. The pursuit of truth is a difficult process-- Nietzsche acknowledged this and so did Joseph Smith. Said the prophet: "A fanciful and flowery and heated imagination beware of; because the things of God are of deep import; and time, and experience, and careful and ponderous and solemn thoughts can only find them out. Thy mind, O man! if thou wilt lead a soul unto salvation, must stretch as high as the utmost heavens, and search into and contemplate the darkest abyss, and the broad expanse of eternity—thou must commune with God." 

I must admit that human communication obviously is successful to some extent, otherwise our world wouldn't function at all. Because of this, our religion is still important, but only insofar as it facilitates and promotes personal experience with God. Joseph Smith's quote suggests that such an experience requires time, dedication, and refining. However, communication from God is pure and uninhibited by the frailties of language; it is channeled in a way that exceeds understanding and is absolutely individual. Attempts to describe such an experience to others are frustratingly impossible, but necessarily so. While we can and ought to lead others to this type of experience, the path to salvation will ultimately become a personal one.