I provided here yesterday a religious naturalist's reading of Pope Benedict XVI's recent encyclical Spe Salvi, "in hope we are saved." I have no delusions that my critique will satisfy or convince the majority of people. The hope for something better than we find in this vale of happiness and tears is part and parcel of the attraction of Christianity and other religions. In the latter part of the encyclical, the pope comments at length on suffering as a school for learning Christian hope. "It is not by sidestepping or fleeing from suffering that we are healed," he writes, "but rather by our capacity for accepting it, maturing through it and finding meaning through union with Christ, who suffered with infinite love." Offer it up, he advises.
I think of old Tom Huxley, Darwin's bulldog, the archetypal religious naturalist and coiner of the word "agnostic." The year is 1887. His beloved daughter Mady slips towards dementia and death. His adored wife Nettie has a tumor to be surgically removed. The poor are rioting in the streets. The kingdom is apparently destined for political and social anarchy, and Huxley's dream of lifting the mass of men and women out of their grinding poverty seems futile. He comes close to despair.
You see a meadow rich in flower & foliage and your memory rests upon it as an image of peaceful beauty. It is a delusion...Not a bird that twitters but is either slayer or [slain and]...in every hedge & every copse battle murder & sudden death are the order of the day.Both Thomas and Nettie must have been sorely tempted to place their hope in an otherworldly salvation.
But the old scrapper was not done yet. He was not yet ready to throw in his lot with the ecclesiastical and political establishments who advised the masses to be content with their lot and look for a better life in heaven. He was not ready to "offer it up." Yes, nature is red in tooth and claw, but it is the sublime human task to detach human ethics from the evolutionary law of death, he believed, not to endure suffering, but to use the power of knowledge and public education to alleviate human misery. And he held fast to his conviction that "the cosmos remains always beautiful and profoundly interesting in every corner," worthy of study, celebration and praise.
Agnosticism is not a creed, said Huxley. It is a method, a Socratic questioning, a demand that every person "give a reason for the faith that is in him" -- a reason tempered in the fire of empirical experience. And in keeping that faith "a man...shall not be ashamed to look the universe in the face."
(This post originally appeared in December 2007.)