Wednesday, July 14, 2010

The middle way

Roland Merullo is a writer who lives in Western Massachusetts who has written a number of highly regarded books, novels and memoirs. He can be a bit too sweet for my taste, but Lord knows the world can use more sweetness. Like me, he was raised a Catholic and still carries a sentimental attraction to certain aspects of that faith. He now counts himself a Buddhist.

In Revere Beach Elegy he has a few things to say about faith, and his "somewhat seasoned optimism" that some kind of benevolent force runs the universe.
I believe this in spite of the torture and misery, the murder and molestation. It is clear enough to me that I may only want the world to be a good place, for life to make sense, and that the motivation for my faith might be purely selfish...I accept the possibility that all my cherished theories about God and the Afterlife and Karma and Enlightenment might turn out to be so much self-delusion, born of the terrible fear of pain, meaninglessness, and the end of my own existence.
High marks to Merullo for hedging his faith with doubt. He admits to having "a real problem" with people who profess certainty about ultimate matters.

At the same time he has a problem with the educated cynic.
There is a danger -- spiritual, psychological, emotional, even practical -- in being suspicious of all goodness, piling up evidence of the meaninglessness of living, the hard-heartedness of divinity...The cynic is afraid to believe that human existence aims toward some greater purpose -- just as the religious fanatic is afraid to believe it doesn't...The cynic guards himself, at all costs, against ridicule...The territory he abides in is a safe but sterile territory.
So where does that leave us? Somewhere between Benedict and Dawkins, I suppose, between pious self-delusion and smug self-satisfaction.

Buddhism charts a middle way, although still a bit too tenet-laden to suit my skeptical bent. Does religious naturalism chart a middle way? The religious naturalist holds as (tentatively) true only that knowledge that passes the rigorous test of empirical inquiry -- which at this time in our evolution more or less equates with science -- yet acknowledges that what we know is probably only a pale intimation of what is. In the overarching ambiance of our ignorance we find ample grounds for humility, wonder, reverence, awe. Hope and goodness we struggle to make for ourselves, because it seems to be the better part of human nature to do so.