Saturday, April 14, 2007

Raids on the unspeakable

The other day the Wall Street Journal had a front page article on the new, militant European atheism. Americans will perhaps know it best through Richard Dawkin's The God Delusion, which remains high on the bestseller list. Apparently the aggressive atheist movement is widespread in Europe, partly as an angry response to militant Islam.

So much shouting. First from Christian and Islamic fundamentalists, and now from the God-debunkers. What a pest is that little word "God" that we use it so handily to bash each other. What certainties it evokes, what hatreds, what intolerances, what noise!

And yet, and yet...

What other word do we have for that aspect of the world that overwhelms us in silence, that lights up every atom and star from within, that sometimes causes us to fall to our knees with a "thank you" on our lips, even though we have no idea who or what to thank?

When I am in New England, my day begins with a sunrise walk to the college, arriving just as the first fresh coffee gurgles in the Common's urns. I slip off with my laptop to the darkest, quietest corner to write these daily reflections. But first I try to listen. To the silence.

In a letter to the Indian scholar Amiya Chakravarty, Thomas Merton wrote:
It is not easy to try and say what I know I cannot say. I do really have the feeling that you have seen something most precious -- and most available too. The reality is present to us and in us: Call it Being, call it Atman, call it Pneuma...or Silence. And the simple fact that by being attentive, by learning to listen (or recovering the natural capacity to listen which cannot be learned any more than breathing), we can find ourselves engulfed in such happiness that it cannot be explained; the happiness of being at one with everything that is hidden in the ground of love for which there can be no explanations. I suppose what makes me most glad is that we recognize each other in this metaphysical space of silence and happiness, and get some sense, for a moment, that we are full of paradise without knowing it.
What brings me so often back to Merton is his sense that all of the great religious traditions find their unity in silence, that all spoken theologies are idolatrous, that the most authentic religious experience occurs at those moments when -- without asking -- our soul is rung like a bell and we feel the vibration to the core of our being. There is then no tension between theism and atheism, religion and science. The experience is pure and existential, grounded in the almost infinte complexity of our neural circuits and their interaction with a world that is mysterious beyond our knowing. To name the experience is to make a Golden Calf. But if it must have a name, "God" has a venerable pedigree.

Unfortunately, the word comes encrusted with such an overlay of Neolithic personhood and magic that to use it is to risk misunderstanding by theists and atheists alike.