Best Of The Dish 2007: The Undiscovered Country

Capesun

Of the 900,000 or so words that have appeared in this space over the last year, most will disappear into the void within minutes, or hours and days at the most. Over the next three days, I’m going to post the four blog-posts I’ve written that, with any luck, might last a little longer. Here’s the first, as part of my blogalogue with Sam Harris. It was first posted on March 14. I’ve taken the liberty of rewriting the final sentence, because in retrospect, it was too easily misconstrued as some kind of jab. But the rest I still stand behind. It’s been a spiritually difficult year for me – after a tough several years. It’s hard to write about, and perhaps important not to write about, but engaging with Sam was one of the highlights of my year, and this response is close to the heart of the matter:

First off, sorry for the dropped ball. Two reasons: mounds of other work and, if I were being completely honest, a bit of a block. I don’t want to go around in circles, so I spent some time re-reading our entire exchange and trying to figure out what the core questions are that I haven’t adequately addressed. I also found myself a little embarrassed in retrospect by the forthrightness of my claims to faith. I feel an unworthy apologist for Christianity in many ways. I’m not a trained theologian nor a priest nor even someone who thinks of himself as a good Christian. The Pope believes I live in mortal sin because I love and live with another man. But I remain a believer in Jesus and in the Gospels and in the church, and I agreed to start this, so I’d better continue. So here goes. You argued a while back that my notion of God "doesn’t have much in the way of specific content (apart from love)." I have indeed held back a little (although God-as-love is no small idea; it is an immense idea). What you have been driving at – rather effectively – is my refusal to say outright that because I believe that Jesus was and is the Son of God, the tenets of other faiths – Islam, Buddhism, Judaism – must be logically false. Mine, you insist, is a solid truth-claim that requires being addressed, especially because these mutually contradicting truth-claims are the source of so much conflict and dissension. You’re right, I think, to judge me "a little evasive" on this score. So let me get less evasive. As a Christian, I do deny Islam’s claim that Jesus was not actually divine. I deny Judaism’s claim that the Messiah has not yet come. I deny any other number of truth-claims held by people of other faiths. And you rightly point out that the nature of the phenomenon we’re discussing – faith – has no universal rubric upon which to rationally decide one claim over another. You want me to engage instead in a discourse about the meaning of the universe that is based on more solid ground – the "real science" of cosmology, biology, chemistry, and ultimately neuroscience – as the key to understanding reality. Or you want me to be more consistent and take the gloves off and start pounding at the Muslims and Jews (and atheists, for that matter) for being so wrong about the most important issue we face as humans.

What is my answer to this?

My first is to insist that spiritual humility and the limits of human wisdom should and do temper my own convictions on matters of faith. I am very much aware that humans have no common rubric by which to judge these religious truth-claims except their internal coherence, their congruence with historical data, their longevity, and one’s own conscience. The last of these is dispositive to my mind, because of the irrational and deeply personal nature of the phenomenon we’re discussing. So I defer to others’ consciences and I’m a reluctant proselytizer. I’m also aware of the hideous human toll over the centuries of excessive religious certainty and intolerance. I’ve read my Locke, and I spent years studying European religious history. I’m not going back to the Inquisition or indeed to the rigidity and certainty of much of modern Islam. This is both a pragmatic and a religious move – pragmatic because I want to live in a peaceful world (I like my iPod and my civil society), and religious because the violence such certainty provokes violates the very teachings of the God I worship. I’m tolerant because I am a Christian.

My second reply is that all these alternative modes of understanding – science, history, etc – are as contingent in the human mind as faith itself. There are small leaps of faith that are necessary for these other modes of understanding to kick in. And all human knowledge is definitionally contingent. You agreed in part but countered that, while contingency is something both religion and science share, some avenues of knowledge are less contingent than others. And you have a point there. The question soon becomes one of relative contingencies. Is scientific thought less contingent than theology?

I think it probably is, which is why I’m fascinated by new research into the brain, evolution, biology, cosmology and the rest. I was intrigued, as I’m sure you were, by the recent piece, "Darwin’s God," in the New York Times Magazine, that posited an evolutionary origin or a neurological accident for the universal human tendency to believe that something is "out there" when, empirically, it isn’t.

So let me discuss that article and see if it helps our dialogue. One non-religious argument for the resilience of religion is that in our evolutionary past, it was more conducive to survival to suspect a threat behind a rustling bush than to dismiss it. So we developed an innate capacity to believe in things that are not there. Another theory suggests that religious faith emerged from the fact that, as social animals, we often have to assume the existence of others’ minds and intentions even when we have no direct evidence for them:

    "The process begins with positing the existence of minds, our own and others’, that we cannot see or feel. This leaves us open, almost instinctively, to belief in the separation of the body (the visible) and the mind (the invisible). If you can posit minds in other people that you cannot verify empirically, suggests Paul Bloom, it is a short step to positing minds that do not have to be anchored to a body. And from there, he said, it is another short step to positing an immaterial soul and a transcendent God."

For much of human history, the theories run, we filled in the gaps in our empirical or scientific knowledge by attributing the inexplicable to magic or superstition or fickle gods. As magic declined and gods became less fickle, monotheistic religion grew. But magic never completely left us (we still do cross our fingers for luck). And as science has grown, monotheism should have surely declined. But it hasn’t. And science – good old science! – offers an answer: our minds may have rationally out-thought religion, but our brains haven’t out-grown it.

We are evolutionarily programmed for faith. Hence the fact that we know of almost no civilizations without religion; and even when religion did decline – in, say, Europe in the twentieth century – pseudo-religions emerged to replace it. Those pseudo-religions, I don’t need to remind you, killed many more than the actual ones. Even in post-modern America, in those places where traditional faith has evaporated, the new age is always dawning.

You could still argue that this is an inherent tragedy of human evolution and that we should still try to resist this pull of the irrational, just as we resist and constrain the evolutionary pull to disseminate our DNA as widely as possible. But in matters of ultimate truth, this isn’t the only option. Let me borrow the words of one scientist of evolution, Justin Barrett, who still has faith:

"Christian theology teaches that people were crafted by God to be in a loving relationship with him and other people. Why wouldn’t God, then, design us in such a way as to find belief in divinity quite natural? Suppose science produces a convincing account for why I think my wife loves me – should I then stop believing that she does?"

Even if science were to come up with a convincing and exhaustive non-religious explanation of the reason for our continuing to be religious as a species, it would still be unable to account for the enduring, subjective experience of that religion. Faith survives – and it is integral to the human experience. It is as integral to being human as the difficulty of believing, in any serious way, that one day, I won’t exist. That is why, I think, religion is best understood, at its core, as an experiential response to the simple fact of our own death. Once a human being has asked himself, as Hamlet did, "To be or not to be?" a human being has become religious, whether he likes it or not. Death is a place from whose bourne no traveler returns, right? (Except Jesus and Lazarus, of course, but let’s postpone miracles and the resurrection for another exchange, can we?)

Maybe religion is best understood not as The Answer to The Question, but as the only human response to the most pressing human fact – our own death. Oakeshott places religious life in the mode of practice, not in the mode of philosophy. I have struggled with this argument for a long time, but the older I get, the wiser it seems.

You and I will both die. To the question of what becomes of us then, science has a simple answer. We decompose and rot and eventually become dust. But the human mind, because it is human, resists that as the final answer to the question of our destiny. We find it very hard to think of ourselves as not being. That resistance is always there. There is no escaping it. I predict you will feel it at the hour of your death, if you have any time to contemplate it. This resistance to our own extinction is part of science and part of our genetic impulse to survive – but also why we feel ourselves connected to something eternal.

Is this sense of an after-life an illusion? We cannot know for sure. But death isn’t an illusion. And when death is nearest, faith emerges most strongly. You can either see this as a reason to pity people of faith – they’re too weak to look mortality in the face and deal with it. Or you can see this as part of the wisdom of people of faith: we know what we are, and we have reached a way of dealing with it as humans, full humans, not just arguments without minds and bodies. Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return.

My own faith came alive most fully when I believed I was going to die young. It came alive as I watched one of my closest friends die in front of me at the age of 31. During that "positive hour," to quote Eliot, I also experienced religious visions, I heard a voice inside of me with a distinct tone that seemed to me divine, I experienced a moment of terrible doubt followed by a moment of complete, unsought-for relief. Maybe all this was a function of fear and existential panic. Maybe it was all a coping mechanism. Maybe it was grief, wrapped up in shame. But I am far from the only person to have experienced such things. Maybe these psychological and spiritual experiences are simply the best way that humans have devised through countless millennia for coping with their own conscious knowledge of their own mortality.

But what that really means is: we have learned how to be human through religion. And how can we not be human? And who would want not to be human? What you are asking for, as I have argued before, is salvation by reason.

Reason can do many things – but saving us is not one of them.