Friday, February 04, 2011

Words and meaning

The other day I said that a religious naturalist "can sing a Te Deum as robustly as anyone." Let me add to a personal qualification.

Of course, religious naturalists, like anyone else, can listen to sacred music with profound appreciation and delight. Bach's Saint Matthew Passion, Handel's Messiah and Mozart's Requeim are among the greatest glories of Western civilization. I could listen to Gregorian chant all day, and I have no qualms about joining in and singing Christmas carols.

But I must confess that when I have occasion to be present at a religious service, I feel a qualm at lifting my voice robustly. I would enjoy taking communion, say, with my Roman Catholic friends and colleagues, as a symbolic meal of companionship, and I'm sure my friend Father R. K., if he were officiating, would not hesitate to hand me the host, though he knows full well I could not recite the Creed with any degree of sincerity. His understanding of the sacramental nature of bread and wine is probably not so different from mine, but I would still feel something of a fraud walking up to the altar with believers. The Creed, after all, is part of the liturgy, and picking and choosing in matters of religion has always seemed to me a dicey proposition.

Maybe I'm just unnecessarily scrupulous.

The religious naturalist Ursula Goodenough tells us in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature that she has no problem being part of a religious congregation and participating fully in the rites, this in spite of the fact that she has no truck with the supernatural. She admits to being enthralled by the beauty and solemnity and power of traditional liturgies. She writes: "The words in the traditional texts may sound different to us than they did to their authors, but they continue to resonate with our religious selves. We know what they are intended to mean."

In his book Consilience, the naturalist E. O. Wilson writes: "Great ceremonies summon the history of a people in solemn remembrance…Sacred symbols infiltrate the very bones of culture. They will take centuries to replace, if ever…It would be a sorry day if we abandoned our venerated sacral traditions…Recognize that when introits and invocations prickle the skin we are in the presence of poetry, and the soul of the tribe, something that will outlive the particularities of sectarian belief, and perhaps belief in God itself."

I have the greatest admiration for Goodenough and Wilson, and wish I could join in, especially with my Catholic colleagues in the celebration of Mass and rites of passage. But I find myself sitting in the back pews of the church, silent. The words of the traditional liturgy come awkwardly to my lips. I want the words to mean what they meant to the people who formulated them, and not what I want them to mean. This, I know, may be a failure of imagination on my part, but -- as my Irish neighbors say -- there you have it.