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Can an understanding of God exist apart from religion? Theology so far has been so deeply intermingled with the stories about God that it’s hard to imagine doctrine without references to tablets and sermons on the mount. Apparently, for a faith-phenomenon to gain widespread acceptance it has to be infused by severe, wide-spread and hallowed embellishment. Based on that, it seems that story and tradition have to exist for a faith to succeed. The problem is that in most religions, the stories are rigid and outdated.

Assuming stories are still needed for religious success, how then can we turn the model upside down so we can have fresh stories as well as a good faith? A values-first approach can help. Let me explain.

If you assume for a moment that none of the stories in the Bible (or other scriptures) can be taken at face value, i.e. that they exist to justify an agenda, because of the conclusions they justify there’s really nothing objective about them even if some of the events they narrate are historical. In other words, the stories are essential to justify the conclusions being drawn out by the exegete. These conclusions are intended to team certain values and behaviors to the population, and to sanctify them via the veracity of the narratives. This means that you need to do certain things ‘because Jesus said so, and Jesus is God’ as evidenced by the stories of miracles. Ignoring the question of salvation from hell for a minute, that seems like a lot of overhead just to get at good behavior.

What if we just skipped the allusions and articulated the values first? The whole notion of heaven, hell, resurrection, salvation, etc. is not something we have to deal with to arrive at solid practices for life that derive from values we sanctify as a society.

We can even start by selecting the values and behaviors from historical religions that are relevant. We can also start fresh, ignoring the challenge of scrubbing stories that have too much historical baggage for some of us. Why not just start with values and let the population of believers develop practices and stories to help themselves assimilate those behaviors. There is more than one way arrive at value-driven behavior it seems. The traditional prescriptive doctrinal approach requires a supporting infrastructure of religious narrative and tradition. The values-first approach, as we may call it, focuses on the learnings first and lets the supporting narratives be develop organically.

When I speak of embellishment, I’m referring to the rich traditions, stories and other aesthetic dimensions that may be added to simple beliefs. A direct correlation can be made between embellishment and the success of a given religion. The richer the tradition, the more successful the religion. Catholicism comes to mind as a prime example. Counter examples exist in various ascetic sects that reject art and the ‘smells and bell’s, but these are minorities.

What comes first, the core beliefs, or the embellishment? Is it the lesson or the parable? The difficulty we have answering this is an indicator of how inextricably bound myth-making is with the growth of a religion. If the author’s only intent is embellishment for entertainment, as in a successful epic narrative like The Lord of the Rings, you end up with a ‘religious’ devotion to something that isn’t really intended to be a religion. People quote the novel like some would quote Scripture. Is the opposite also true? Can we have we have a value set accepted as sacred truth without the supporting narratives?

An example of the values-first approach is articulations of corporate values. Many companies will have a religion-agnostic set of values like ‘treat others with respect’, ‘assume good intent’, ‘focus on results’, ‘contribute to the success of others, leverage the contributions of others’, etc. These are intended to be internalized by employees so they manifest behaviors that foster collaboration and drive success. Supporting example stories may be given, but these are not seen as religious stories. They are fleeting justifications that can easily be replaced or altered without violation. If the story fits, use it. Sometimes games and exercises are developed to drive home the values as well. While some can become annual events, they are not give the significance of a religious tradition.

Can such ‘corporate’ values in the abstract be ‘sanctified’ and leveraged by the population at large to achieve the same ends as religion, i.e. to drive virtuous behavior of societies? This is an interesting question we should engineer into a pattern for reverse-religion, i.e. a values-first approach to ‘indoctrination’. There would be a certain ‘doctrification’ of narratives from the creative side of the population that is the playing a key role in establishing a new type of shared religion, one that is fuzzy around the narrative edges. The myths are made sacred by collective blessing of the values that drive them.

This diagram illustrates the difference between a ‘Narrative-first’ and the ‘Values-first’ approaches.


On the left, Narrative-first means that an ancient core narrative grew to have holy significance in the tribe, and out of that stories were canonized (into a Bible, for example). Over time as the stories failed to satiate people’s needs, additional folk embellishments were added that were not at the status of Holy Scripture, nevertheless were shared and revered. At a given point in time all of these – the fading canon stories and the sacred folk stories were what a person was presented, i.e. the ‘edge of presentation.’ However, people don’t just assimilate what they are presented, they apply their own filters and weighting, to the point where what they receive is what they want to believe. Note that in the end, the canonized stories blend and fade along with the cacophony of other messages people deem valuable and assimilate. What soaks in varies from person to person.

Note that the Narrative-first system can consume a lot of energy in maintaining the canon stories in the forefront of people’s minds. First, they must be established, which means filtering out anything that didn’t rise the standard. Second, this establishment is done by a select group of experts, which introduces social tension. Third, over time the stories become less relevant, and more and more energy is required to make them stick with people like they did in the beginning. Finally, to maintain a cannon, there is a constant battle between the ardent believers and those who would embellish the faith – the conservatives vs. the liberals.

Now let’s turn to the Values-first approach. Since ‘a-storical’ values are agreed upon first (‘a-storical’ simply means values in the abstract, that are not inherently justified by a sacred core narrative). We can think of them as humanitarian values. In any case, a set of values is made sacred by the community, with some definition and examples. From those values, the community is free to create stories to explain them to various audiences with locale-specific flavors and color. This suite of narratives likewise compose and edge of presentation that any given individual will encounter at a given time. As in the previous example, the user brings their own filters, so the end result is really about the same. People have assimilate what they want to believe in, and stories help tremendously with that programing.

With a Values-first approach, there is a lot less energy and strife expended on sustaining the canon-story establishment because it doesn’t exist. In its place is a tolerant culture of creativity. The key in all this is accepting the new pattern, and fostering a process for the establishment of the sacred humanitarian a-storical value set.

In this paradigm there is no hermeneutic of Scripture – there is only interpretation of art. The sacred values have already been articulated because they came first. Intent is clarified up front. There is no practice of interpreting the text to discern the will of God. The god-will, as we internally know it, was summarily recognized and articulated in the vernacular at the start. Interpretation comes during the embellishment process as we look at the work of artists and try to understand their response to subject matter based on the canonical values they have accepted as the soul-blood of their creative efforts.

Since all religious story is filtered by what the individual projects over it – their current struggles, pain points, pleasures or joys, there has never been a time when a sacred story has landed objectively, i.e. in the same way for everyone. We have been interpreting the narratives with personal filters and imaginative embellishments forever.

Being human is the certification of your right to appeal to your conscience, as validated by your understanding of collective norms, and your assessment of the output of the story writers and artists. The interpretation can be advocated but should not be contentious due to any exclusivity mandate. The idea that there’s one set of canon-stories is gone. Because the values are already clear, the interpretation is about understanding nuances of multiple meanings, each of which is valid from the person’s own perspective (as it always has been). Thus there are no denominational schisms with each side claiming the truth based on interpretation.

In other words, interpretation is not seen to narrow inwards where there’s only room for one truth. Rather, interpretation fans out from values, dividing into endless branches, each of which is capable of carrying and conveying truth for someone. Expansive interpretation based on core values affirms our creativity, variety and humanity and teaches us to co-exist in the process.

Traditional religion, it seems, has the flow of interpretation backwards: we should not narrow down narrative artifacts into a holy cannon, and then use interpretation to drive out the values and lessons. Rather we should start from values derived from our collective life’s lessons and let embellishment and interpretation fan out without limit. But remember, the ensuing unlimited interpretation of the embellishment is not the same as ‘anything goes’: the foundational values constrain the efforts. Thus we can achieve balance between unity of intent and variety of expression, and thereby realize the embellishment which seems to be a pre-requisite for widespread adoption of a faith.

— Roy Zuniga

August 2014
Kirkland, WA

copyright (c) 2014 Roy Zuniga