Seminary Program

This is where we post the essays from many of our Universal Life Church Seminary students. When students finish a ULC course, they write a comprehensive essay about their experiences with the course, what they learned, didn't learn, were inspired by, etc. Here are their essays.

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Thursday, September 03, 2009

Religious Philosophy

Rev. Phil Robinson

In any field of study it is important to understand some of the path which has led
that study to its current state. The ideas and concepts of religious philosophy as
an academic study have been around for as long as religious thought. Whether it
is defining what is and isn't classed as religion, how a particular religion should
be practiced, or analyzing elements of different religions, the concept of studying
and analyzing religious thoughts has always been present. While the main drive
of religious philosophy through Europe by the Christians may have been during
the 18th century, examples of study outside of these conditions can be found
throughout history.

An early example of what we would recognize today as religious philosophy
might be "Euthyphro" which is an early dialogue of the Athenian philosopher
Plato (428-347 B.C.) . It contains a dialogue between the Ancient Greek
philosopher Socrates (369-399 B.C.) and a well know religious expert Euthyphro.
The discussion is an attempt to define the concept of piety and shows a very
serious early dedication to examining religion from a philosophical point of view.
In the East the exposure to religions unlike your own was far more common and
religious ideas were shared across them. Unlike in Europe in the 17th/18th
century the idea of adopting and embracing elements from different religions was
much more widespread. Without this attitude Buddhism may not have grown in
the same manner. It was, as it is today, versatile, adaptable and easy to fit in with
your own belief systems. In India, Buddhism grew out of Hinduism and was
distributed around the Eastern countries, such as China and Japan via the silk
road. The people of India, later reverted to Hinduism and Buddhism grew and
changed in its new surroundings.

Some early religions didn't just take influence and basic ideas from others but
integrated large pieces of dogma, orthodoxy, orthopraxy and in some cases
entire deities. A good example here would be Egypt in the Greco-Roman period
where the process was bi-directional. Romans were building Egyptian
monuments, Egyptian mummies were being painted and adored with Roman
images. Neither were prepared to abandon or fully integrate their religious ideas
or indeed any other elements of the society.

My point is this, that different religions have always studied each other and
compared and contrasted the results, yes it is true that some ethnocentric
religions have done this from a point of proving to themselves that they are the
correct set of beliefs but in the earlier development of religion and philosophy this
was also done to share and develop ideas.

This course introduced me to the works of Feuerbach who I had not been aware
of before. The concept of projection that derives from Feuerbach's "Essence of
Christianity" can be seen in many forms, not only as a creation of a god from the
mind of man (and here by man I mean a member of Mankind, male or female)
but also as a form of metaphysical manifestation.

As man creates ideas, concepts and thoughts within the private reality of his own
mind, he also projects and to an extent manifests these thoughts into the reality
of others. An inventor creates a new invention first of all in his mind only.
Likewise a preacher may project thought to his congregation.

I think that the projection Feuerbach was talking about is not only one within the
mind of individual men but also a projection into the global human knowledge
and a reality that is shared by all so if enough people think and believe
something is a particular way then to a certain extent it becomes true within the
frame of normal human existence and belief. In the words of The Buddha: "We
are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts we
make the world."

The analysis of religion by breaking down separate components was a good
approach throughout. I enjoyed examining how they linked together like the
ingredients of a religion. For example "precepts and concepts" which are clearly
very different elements of religion but still have some degree of relationship
within their systems. A concept could translate into a precept if its importance is
such that it becomes a part of the orthopraxy and it is generally believed that it
should be practiced by all.

For example, a respect for all sentient beings may be an existent concept that
eventually becomes used as a precept such as 'Thou shalt not kill'. Likewise that
same precept may transmit a concept of compassion to the many without
defining it specifically as such.

Classification of religion is just as difficult as it is to clearly define anything
complex into a particular set of properties but also maybe the very process of
creating categories is flawed, for example are all religions not dualist "and"
monist to some degree? If we look at the dualist concepts of "good and evil" and
"yin and yang" as examples we might see them as the following; Yin and Yang
are complements of each other rather than opposites and this may also apply to
good and evil. Is there really evil as a separate and distinct entity to good or is
evil only manifested by the absence or differing levels of good?

Christianity may be examined as a dualist religion on the basis that it sees both
good and evil yet it is monotheistic believing that all is the creation of one.
Likewise the yin or yang is one of two forces that mutually promote and restrict
each other to the level that when they are in balance they become one. The unity
and completeness of this one is the whole point of the yin yang philosophy, not
their separate and distinct properties or states. Monism and Dualism are both
apparent in most systems, there importance is elevated depending on the criteria
and level of analysis.

It was stated in the later parts of the course, when dealing with apocalyptic and
eschatological faiths, that there are also religions who completely ignore the "last
things" and deal solely with the life we are given. I believe that this may not be
"ignoring" but more examining things from a different scope. For example a man
may prepare for his death by preparing for the last days, not of the world, or of
the universe, but certainly of his world. If one believes that the world in which
they reside is contained entirely within themselves, such as in a projected reality
like that referred to by Feuerbach, does this apocalyptic nature of death not then
make the person eschatological.

The sections on the "god gene" and the studies that were referenced in this
course also interested me, the trouble with statistics is that you can make them
say almost anything you like. I read through a lot of studies relating to the brain's
responses to self transcendence and spirituality and all of them seem to be

First of all I'm not convinced that selected groups are the best to draw any
conclusions from. In the "Self-transcendence in Australian twins" research, were
the subjects told the nature of the experiment, it seems to indicate by omission
and the fact that there were no results where they "never" went to church, that all
subjects had some degree of religious activity.

Secondly the method for assessment of a person's degree of spirituality seems a
little suspect. They were asked true or false questions such as these:

● Often I have unexpected flashes of insight or understanding while
● I often feel a strong spiritual or emotional connection with all the people
around me.
● I often feel that I am a part of the spiritual force on which all life depends.
● I sometimes feel so connected to nature that everything seems to be part
of one living organism.
● I love the blooming of flowers in the spring as much as seeing an old
friend again.

Is this really the best way to asses the entire complex sphere of religious and
spiritual activity? Even if you narrow it down to self transcendence, can a couple
of heavily weighted and romantically worded, true or false questions give an
accurate picture of the experience of an enlightened being?

I also took a look at the study "The Serotonin System and Spiritual Experiences"
in the "American Journal of psychiatry", and it would indeed seem to suggest that
the serotonin system is shown to have an effect on an individual's predisposition
towards spiritual experiences and religiosity. As with the other studies; the twins
research, and the god gene, you have to ask "What is the relevance of a change
in brain chemistry upon the experiences of the subject?" They are no less real
through a scientific explanation.

There are many physiological and chemical changes when a person is exposed
to stress or threat. This stress response is a natural part of human evolution but
stress is not a psychological anomaly any more than spirituality is. Explaining the
natural responses within the human body and giving things a scientific label does
not demystify the metaphysical elements of those responses. In the same way
that continuous exposure to stressful situations can increase one's predisposition
to release adrenaline and become more alerted to stress, surely increased
exposure to spiritual experiences will increase the neural and chemical
responses of the brain. The brain is after all like any other organ, it just responds
according to its functional biology and nature.

There is always the notion that the mind is not necessarily 100% a child process
of the brain. Therefore changes in the brain chemistry may affect the mind but
not to the extent that the mind is altered beyond choice. This process is a two
way operation, that is the conditioning of the mind can also affect the brain
chemistry in the same manner. With continuous and deliberate practices,
whether religious in nature or not, affecting the levels and receptors of
monoamines such as dopamine and serotonin in the brain. Meditation and prayer
may both be examples of such practices.

The big questions asked of life are what link religion with philosophy, man has
always sought answers to these question, who am I?, why are we here?, What is
matter?, what is reality?. Religion may have started as an early attempt to
explain the unexplainable but it has certainly become more than that. When does
philosophy become religion and vice versa? Is it the presence of a god or is it
more the presence of faith? If it is faith then a atheist can be also be said to be
religious as it requires as much a leap of faith to categorically deny the existence
of a supreme being, with no proof, as it does to declare the existence. This leads
to a questioning of existence itself.

How does something exist? Is there a difference between existence and reality?
Or is it true to say that simply be existing something is part of reality? What if the
item in question is not a physical object but a concept, thoughts exist but have
little physical presence other than electrical impulses, how about mathematics?
Nobody could deny the existence of mathematics yet it is purely conceptual, it
has no presence outside of the mind of those who understand it conceptually. If
we then look at the big question, "Does god exist?" then we might see that he
exists in the thoughts, beliefs, and prayers of those who have a relationship with
god. God certainly exists in the churches and communities that derive strength
from their faith. Whether you "believe" or think that there is some form of deity or
spiritual being become irrelevant. God is part of reality through his existence in
the hearts and minds of man.

In summary the course has extended not only my understanding but also led my
study into many different and enjoyable tangents, I took my time to complete the
course but enjoyed some extended research as a natural and logical progression
from the main study. The material presented was done so in a way that raised as
many questions as it answered and left me eager to further this line of study.


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