Monday, August 26, 2013

Author Spotlight: Eugene Webb

Worldview and Mind: Religious Thought and Psychological Development by Eugene Webb

Worldview and Mind covers a wide range of thinkers and movements to explore the relation between religion and modernity in all its complexity. Eugene Webb invokes a number of topical issues, including religious terrorism, as he unfolds the phenomenon of religion in all its complications, from the difference between faith and belief to the diversities among—and within—religions.

What drew you to write about this complex topic?

One of the writers I talk about, Robert Kegan, has described our modern world as one in which many of us find ourselves “in over our heads,” overwhelmed both by competing visions of life in our pluralistic world and by the demands of mental development these make on us.  I conceived my book as a kind of guide for the perplexed that would help people deal with these challenges by showing the reciprocal relation between the worldviews we hold and the minds we develop and hold them with.  It is a book not about what to think but about how to think--that is, about what is involved in the process of thinking carefully and critically about issues of ultimate meaning and value.

What is the difference between faith and belief?

Since the rise of modern science in about the seventeenth century, the word belief has taken on the rather narrow meaning of holding opinions, usually with insufficient evidence.  In its root meaning, as Wilfred Cantwell Smith showed, believe is cognate to the German belieben, meaning to cherish or hold dear.  The root in Latin is similar: credo (I believe) is formed from cor (heart) + do (I give).  It is in modern usage, therefore, that the two words diverge.  In their original meanings they were quite close, with faith referring to loving trust and loyalty under conditions of uncertainty.  In the book I discuss St. Thomas Aquinas’s conception of living faith (fides formata) as animated by love, as compared with dead faith (fides informis), which lacks animation by love.  The word belief, in modern usage, tends to be understood as referring to the latter.

What are the basic steps we can take to be more tolerant of others’ beliefs?

One key element, I think, it to recognize that all worldviews are developed by interpretation and that careful thinking in any domain requires a willingness to consider different possibilities of interpretation.  Another is to recognize that religions tend to address questions that have no simple and straightforward answer, so that alternative symbolisms may be helpful in further illuminating the areas of mystery and spiritual experience religions are concerned with.

Why do you think religion has had such a huge impact on society since as far back as religion dates? What is it about us that makes religion such a big part of our lives?

I think human beings have a basic thirst for meaning that is all-encompassing in its reach.  Religions are not the only way people can try to satisfy this thirst, but religions, at least at their best, tend to be the most open to living in the face of mystery.

In your introduction you say, “Almost every person alive today is aware that there are people who hold visions of life different from his or her own, and almost everyone suffers at least some degree of anxiety about the lack of certainty this implies.” Do you ever find yourself guilty of having this anxiety?

I don’t think anxiety is something anyone should have reason to feel guilty about.  I agree with Kierkegaard that anxiety is a great teacher and that if one listens to it, it can lead toward greater intellectual and spiritual openness.  Anxiety comes as an indication that one may be resisting new possibilities of interpretation that might be more adequate to experience.  If one attends to the voice of anxiety, it can make one aware of areas of resistance.  Anxiety becomes chronic, and therefore problematic, however, when one resists it by trying to cling to impossible claims to certainty that would exclude further questions and further possibilities of experience and interpretation.

Do you think that it is likely in our lifetime that “the world’s religions might manage to develop a way of living together with mutual appreciation and respect”?

Certainly not in our lifetime, but even so, each individual can try, by living in intellectual and spiritual openness as a reasonable, responsible person, to contribute to the development of a world in which such mutual appreciation and respect can take root.

What can you tell us about your next book?

In Chapter 7, on “The Dynamic Diversity of Religious Worldview,” I said that the vitality of a religion depends on its openness to differences of interpretation and that just as there is diversity among different religions, there is also diversity within any given stream of religion.  In this book I used the diverse forms among Islamic traditions as the main example, but I also mentioned that there was similar diversity within the Christian tradition and that the differences between Eastern and Western Christianity would be worth exploring.  That is what my next book, In Search of the Triune God: The Christian Paths of East and West (University of Missouri Press) will be about.

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