Monday, March 04, 2013

Table talk – 3


Religions appear to be almost universal. They traditionally serve at least three deeply felt human needs. 1) They provide a story for why things are as they are: Where did the world come from? Why are we here? What happens to us when we die? 2) They provide a language and a context for what we might call our spiritual lives: a personal response to a perceived mystery that transcends and vivifies our collective stories. 3) In rites and ritual, they bind us into a community of celebration, petition and praise.

The first of these needs has been subsumed by science. The scientific stories have proven themselves far more resilient and intellectually satisfying than the myths (as we now call them) that satisfied our ancestors. In so far as the scientific story of creation leaves some questions unanswered -– what preceded the big bang? how did life begin? etc. -– the naturalist is content to say (for the time being) "I don't know." The discovery of ignorance is one of the greatest gifts of science.

Even what we do know, or think we know, is enveloped in an aura of mystery. I have often used the metaphor –- not unique to me -– of knowledge as an island in an infinite sea of mystery: as the island grows, so does the shoreline where we encounter mystery. I would make a distinction between "mystery" and "ignorance"; ignorance we can chip away at, mystery abides even in what we know. Margaret objects to my using the language of traditional religion to describe the encounter with mystery –- "grace," for instance, or "prayer," or "sacred," or "sacrament." I make no apology. Science provides a language of knowing; traditional religion, stripped of supernaturalism and anthropomorphism, can provides a useful language for the shore.

We are communal creatures. We are sustained by shared experience. I can no longer recite the Creed, or in honesty partake of the Eucharist, but I'm not willing to turn my back on where I've been. I have lived most of my life within a Roman Catholic milieu; I am happy to draw from that context whatever gifts of language, fellowship and wisdom are consistent with a rigorous naturalism.

So for these reasons, Margaret, I append "religious" to "naturalism." This does not, I think, weaken my commitment to the naturalist paradigm; rather it affirms an openness to an experience of the natural world that is broader and richer than what I find each week in the pages of Science or Nature. It is the "gee!" and "wow!" of the "what."

One last comment tomorrow.