Dr. David Wilbur: Power and Illusion: Religion and Human Need. Part 5
by Ervin Taylor
This is part 5 of a discussion of Dr. Wilbur’s book which here considers his Chapter 4. It should be emphasized that all of the text in this series of blogs in bold font in the body of the text of the chapter summary has been kindly provided by Dr. Wilbur. If there are any of my own comments, they will follow in regular type.
There is nothing permanent except change.
Religions claiming their origins in Divine action in the world seemed candidates for arriving perfected. Observation suggested evolving traditions so I needed an explanation for this.
Resistance to Change
The claims of a supernatural origin for a religious group may give the conservative a justification to resist change and to seek to return to some available description of the original. Thus most religions have a fundamentalist strand seeking the “pure vision” of the founders—sometimes forcefully.
The Human Component
Religions are virtual realities created to serve human purposes. They allow men to stand up and say they are speaking for “God” while in fact they remain men who have their own set of incentives which will shape their message in human ways.
The Problems of Language
Much of religious belief is founded on the interpretation of ancient documents such as the Bible and the Qur’an. The linguists tell us that we have a limited ability to get back to the original intent of these documents. The words change their meanings over time and the grammars also change. Evolving interpretations are quite possible and can lead to changes in beliefs or organizational schisms.
The Many Voices
The Bible contains the writings of many different people over a period of hundreds of years. Different writers had different concerns about both God and man. The messages of the Qur’an were supposedly given over a 22 year period when Mohammed’s political fortunes were quite varied. This may explain some of the seemingly contradictory recommendations there. Overall the documents of an established religion contain the voices of many people with many visions of God. Selective emphasis can usually be used to support change.
The Essential Plasticity of the Central Myth
Almost all religious traditions of substantial antiquity and even some only 100-200 years old have evolved multiple strands. These each claim to be the correct interpretation for those who accept the central myth that anchors their tradition—and is claimed by all the strands. Christianity is a wonderful example of this, especially the group of Protestant sects all claiming to be based on the Bible but being quite divergent. Islam and Buddhism have been no less prolific in multiplying versions of their myths.
Limitations on Religious Self Analysis
In seeking power over their followers religions find it helpful to claim some form of divine source. They do not support psychological, sociological or anthropological studies to understand how the religion fills human needs. They also do not offer any grounds for comparing traditions beyond the impossible-to-evaluate claims of divine inspiration.
In the world of religion there is a persistent tension between the “remembered” supernatural past and the constantly changing present. This can be a source of fundamentalist backlash and also of creative evolution of the traditions. Religious leaders generally find it impossible to admit the human origins of their belief systems and therefore are usually unable to engage in a critical analysis of the roles of religion in human culture.