Tuesday, April 15, 2008

On not "offering it up"

Benedict XVI arrives in the United States today on his first visit to this country as pope -- an appropriate time, perhaps, to consider again his second encyclical, Spe Salvi ("In hope we are saved" Rom 8:24).

In the encyclical, the pope says it is a distinguishing mark of Christians that they know their lives will not end in emptiness. He then asserts that old canard: "Only when the future is certain as a positive reality does it become possible to live in the present as well."

He means, of course, a future beyond the grave. And it is precisely here that the scientific agnostic diverges most dramatically from the person of faith. After centuries of empirical study, not a shred of non-anecdotal evidence has emerged to suggest that there is a ghost in the machine or life in the hereafter.

Which does not prove it is not so, of course. The pope's first encyclical was on faith. Faith can believe in the absence of evidence, and the scientific agnostic will be the first to admit that he doesn't know everything. The world is constantly turning out to be stranger than we ever imagined. A hundred years ago, who could have imagined the strange dance of the DNA or the myriad galaxies revealed by the Hubble Ultra Deep-Field Photo.

But for the scientific agnostic the world's strangeness reveals itself most reliably in reproducible empirical observation. And on the basis of reproducible empirical observation the immortal soul has been for centuries in full retreat.

To each his own. Far be it for me to deny anyone hope of heaven. What I will dispute, however, is the pope's assertion that without faith in an immortal future one cannot live fully in the present. In fact, the opposite would seem to make rather more sense. When the present is all one has, it behooves one to make the best of it.

Yes, for some that might mean heedless hedonism. But for the religious naturalist, living fully in the present means attending with reverence to every particular of the world -- not in hope of a better world, but because this one is magnificent and full of mystery. For the religious naturalist, living fully in the present means seeking to ameliorate suffering, selfishness, superstition and internecine strife -- not because of the promise of reward or fear of punishment, but because a thoughtful empiricism suggests that one's personal happiness depends upon the happiness of all.

Ironically, Spe Salvi is a rather gloomy document. Human suffering is not only an ineradicable part of the world, says the pope, it is a necessary school for hope and faith: "It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed, but rather by our capacity for accepting it." What a grim version of hope! For all of the difficulty of alleviating the suffering of humankind, the religious naturalist, having only this world, grounds her hope in the very thing the pope dismisses -- the incremental perfectibility of this corner of the universe that cosmic happenstance has rendered into our care.