Tuesday, November 18, 2008

To be alive

Sixty-five years ago, my religious education began with the first question of the Baltimore Catechism: "Why did God make me?" Answer: "He made me to know Him, to love Him, and to serve Him." These days, I reverence a Mystery that is less purposeful, less personal, and less gendered than the fatherly "He" I studied in primary school. But the answer to that first catechism question seems as relevant as ever.

In his book The Diversity of Life, Harvard entomologist E. O. Wilson quotes the Sengalese conservationist Baba Dioum: "In the end, we will conserve only what we love, we will love only what we understand, we will understand only what we are taught." It is the same lesson that I learned all those years ago in primary school.

Knowledge, love, service: These are at the core of the religious impulse, and they are what unites the religious naturalist and the traditional believer. We differ, however, in the object of our attention. The religious naturalist honors the world itself, rather than an elusive supernatural divinity. We differ too in what we take to be the most secure avenue to knowledge. I have been looking again at Bert Holldobler and E. O. Wilson's magisterial work on ants (for next Sunday's Musing), a massive tome that strikes me as more full of useful knowledge than any ancient scriptures or pronouncements by popes or prophets. Ants? Yes, why not. Reliable, consensus, scientific knowledge of the world -- all of the world! -- is our starting point for love and service.

We don't need a promise of everlasting bliss. We agree instead with the poet Mary Oliver:
Look, I want to love this world
as though it's the last chance I'm ever going to get
to be alive
and know it.