Saturday, February 07, 2009

Celebrating the Unnamable

It has been a source of wonder to some of my friends that Ave Maria Press at the University of Notre Dame chose to publish When God Is Gone, Everything Is Holy, a book that is frankly agnostic. It is a source of wonder to me too, but also a source of gratitude, and pride -- pride that my alma mater (twice) is open to a variety of interpretations of the encounter with mystery that is at the heart of the religious impulse. They surely recognized that the book is deeply Catholic in a cultural sense; how could it be otherwise, given that I have spent my entire life in a Catholic milieu.

Notre Dame Magazine has over the years been exceptionally open to publishing essays of mine on soul, free will, the genetics of belief, etc. that were entirely naturalistic (and heretical by the standards of orthodox theology.) I have read essays in that most excellent journal by Nancy Mairs, Gary Bowman, and others to which the most ardent naturalist can give wholehearted assent. What all of these essays have in common is a sense of humility in the face of mystery that is -- when all is said and done -- the mystical ground where religion begins.

Here, for example, is the non-Christian physicist Gary Bowman (Winter, 2005):
Seen only as a means to the practical ends of health, wealth and comfort, science becomes rarefied engineering. Seen only as good works, as morality, as reward or punishment in this life and the next, religion becomes a carrot-and-stick connection to God.

Yet always there have been those who sought in religion, and sometimes found, a deep core that transcends self and time -- where morality is not an end in itself but a means to that core. This core is immune to scientific and intellectual attack; it is neither history lesson nor moral code nor explanation of the world. It is accessible not through reason and logic but through personal experience of the ineffable, the unnamable, the mysterious -- through the mystical experience...

...As moral authority, religion is subject to moral failure; as explanation of the world, it is subject to scientific condemnation. What refuge, then, can religion offer the modern critical mind? Without a thread of mystery running through religion, without God as mystery at its heart, that mind may well conclude that religion itself is bankrupt, that God is nothing at all...

...It is a mystery that resides in that place where the deepest science ends and the deepest religion begins.
Although I have long since rejected the superincumbent apparatus of institutional Catholic theology that has so often threatened to smother the mystical instinct -- and so often found itself in contention with science -- it remains true that within Catholicism the flame of mystery has remained alive, always burning like the flickering altar light in a darkened cathedral. I found it burning during my eight years at Notre Dame. It burns there still.