Tuesday, October 19, 2004

Doctrine and Practice

I maintain that religion involves both doctrine and practice, and that neither can be reduced to the other. Kevin Kim, in a post that by now has passed into archival oblivion, holds that doctrine is a form of practice. His reason? No people, no doctrine. I take his point to be that religious doctrine is something people create. If so, religious doctrine is a form of religious practice.

‘Doctrine,’ from the Latin infinitive docere, to teach, literally means teachings. But teachings, though they refer back to a teacher and a human context of teaching and learning, also stand under the alternative: true/false. It is of course very difficult to say which teachings are true. But some teachings or other must be true if the religious enterprise is to make sense at all. For if all religious teachings were false, religion would be a bankrupt enterprise. It would be an illusory project. The same would hold if all such teachings were meaningless, and therefore neither true nor false, as a logical positivist would maintain about the core doctrines that include a metaphysical component. Something like this is maintained by Sam Harris, some of whose ideas I have addressed elsewhere1 and elsewhere2.

So although it is true that religious teachings are promulgated and propagated by human beings, they express a content that is either true or false. Thus a distinction is needed between doctrines as human artifacts, for which Kim’s "No people, no doctrine" dictum holds, and doctrines as expressing a content that is either true or false.

Is it the Nicene Creed that begins, "I believe in God the Father, almighty creator of heaven and earth. . . "? That creed was cobbled together in Nicea (modern day Iznik, Turkey) by finite and fallible human beings in a concrete historical setting replete with political tensions and all the ugly rivalries and pettinesses of the human condition. It is to that extent a human product. But it is more since it implies certain propositions that are either true or false, for example, that heaven and earth have a certain ontological status: they exist only as created and maintained in being by God, as opposed to possessing independent existence.

Now either that is the case, or it isn’t, and either way it is the nature of reality that makes it so, and not anything that human beings make or do. This is why the content of doctrines as opposed to their promulgating, propagating, interpreting, and the like, is irreducible to any form of human practice, religious or non-religious. The doctrines in their propositional content cannot be reduced to practice, and practice cannot be reduced to doctrine.

In brief, I respond to Kim by distinguishing between doctrines as human products and the propositional content of doctrines: ‘doctrine,’ taken neat, is ambiguous as between the two. His "No people, no doctrine" dictum holds for doctrine in the first but not the second sense.

One consequence of what I am saying is that there is a prima facie tension between religion and science, or to be precise, between religion and science when the latter lays claim to being the only valid access to reality. When science makes this unscientific claim it is called scientism. Thus religion and scientism collide, at least prima facie, and there is no escape from this collision by any such facile Wittgensteinian move as the reduction of both religion and science to the status of mere language games that may exist side-by-side without competition. But this is a huge topic from which I am saved by the exigency of blogic brevity.