Sunday, September 27

Taking the Vows of a "None"

skepticI keep reading and hearing about the results of polls like the ones from Gallup and Berkeley to the effect that the fastest-growing group of "religious" people are people who respond "None" on surveys of religious attitudes. At first, I was encouraged by this. I figured any development that indicates people are coming to believe that this life and rationality are sufficient to imbue human existence with purpose, meaning, and value, and that consequently people are increasingly open to discovering other sources, alternate sources, non-theistic sources, of what we might generically call "Transcendence", would be an overall benefit to the human species. All I ask is that ample allowance be made for people who wish to remain conventionally, monotheistically religious – which, at this point, seems to be most people – and people whose mental health would be seriously disrupted by too close an approach to atheism or agnosticism or even alternative approaches to religion.


But upon reflection, I backed off several steps from my sense of encouragement, having realized I did not know what the statistic really means. I can think offhand of several possibilities that may fairly be grouped under the umbrella term “None”, and people, over the span of a lifetime, may evolve from one stage to the other. What they mean by “None” at one point in their life may mean something quite different from what “None” means years – or months – later. I have considerable sympathy for this process. Being “called” – I use the term metaphorically, since I do not believe in being “called” in the religious, vocational sense – from one state of belief to another is closely analogous to being “called” to a religious “vocation”. For me, at least, becoming a “None” was much like becoming a nun: it is something one evolves into, and that only becomes clear in retrospect. So when people respond “None” to surveys of religious attitudes, what do they mean to say at the time the question is asked or the survey taken? Do they mean they have come to believe …

o … that human beings are on their own, but that they are able to rely on one another and their own indigenous reason, for standards of right and wrong, meaning, value, beauty, etc.?

 This is basically the position enunciated by the extraterrestrial being in the movie Contact, who, disguised as astronomer Eleanor Arroway’s father, met her and told her, with a glance at the stars, that “the only thing that makes the darkness bearable is one another”. This has become my position, also, after a 50-plus-year and – I only now realize -- singularly fruitless dalliance with monotheistic religion, specifically Christianity in my case. I fully recognize that, for many people, belief in God is not only psychotherapeutically necessary to avoid derangement, but that it makes possible many things that fill human life with glory and depth. To concentrate only on music, imagine Bach’s St. Matthew’s Passion without belief in the Divine transcendence of that narrative; Handel’s Messiah without belief, some kind of belief, in the Messiah; Antonio Allegri’s great Miserere without the immanence of God in the world. (Whether works of equal greatness could have been created from an atheistic / agnostic viewpoint is a question that prevents the conclusion from being unqualified. We simply do not – cannot – know. As C. S. Lewis once said, we can know what did happen, and we can know what did not happen, but we can never know what would have happened.) Anyway … Peace. Not to belabor the point, I gladly concede that religious belief can have beneficial consequences, both individually and culturally.

But for many people – people like me – religious belief defined exclusively as belief in any monotheistic God marks the event horizon of a black hole from which it is imperative that folks like us stay well away. For us – not for everyone, but for us – God is bad news. Furthermore – again, not for everyone, but for people like me who have never had much luck with gods – evolving away from monotheism may eventually be seen as maturation, as individuation, as progress, and prior belief in monotheism as, at best,  the eggshell from which we had to “hatch” in order to be born into a wider world. So I bless and sing the praises of whatever cultural processes have, at least in the United States, diminished the pressure to assert belief in a religious ideology that, not for everyone, but for many, is the spiritual equivalent of a torture rack, and rendered us free to be who we are … in many cases, who we were all along … and to don the interior habit of a “None”.


o … in a a vague, undifferentiated sense of the the Holy, the Sacred, not bound to institutional forms, rituals, and organizations 

 I do not mean now “vague, undifferentiated” in any pejorative sense. Very much to the contrary, I mean the sense of mystery referred to by the Scholastic motto of the High Middle Ages Omnia exeunt in mysterium -- “Everything culminates in mystery” – in the archaic Greek sense of “mystery” derived from the root infinitive myein, meaning “to close the mouth” by not attempting to talk about something that is beyond words. (Woruber mann kann nicht sprechen, daruber muB man schweigen -- “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof must one be silent” – Ludwig Wittgenstein) This sensitivity to and respect for mystery was the essence of the spirituality of Albert Einstein, who otherwise was an atheist. Mine, too. Loss of a belief in a monotheistic God by no means whatsoever implies a loss of one’s capacity to experience wonder and awe. In fact, in a certain sense, such a loss can – does not necessarily, but depending on the person, can – re-sensitize one to wonder, and rejuvenate a capacity for experiencing the Holy – Rudolf Otto’s mysterium tremendum et fascinans -- hitherto dulled by being reduced to creeds, doctrines, confessions, etc., that, for certain people, turned the landscape of the Universe into something as mundane as a map of the Santa Monica Freeway. As the late Dag Hammarskjold said in his journal Markings, The light died in the low clouds. Falling snow drank in the dusk. Shrouded in silence, the branches wrapped me in their peace. When the boundaries were erased, once again the wonder: that I exist. Some of us see the Universe again, once God withdraws beyond the horizon. (Maybe this is what the old Qabbalists were obliquely referring to when they talked about tzimtzum:  God's voluntary Self-withdrawing into Godself so as to give the Universe "room" to just be.) For us, God must die in order for the world to live. Ah the sweet, the exquisite irony! For some people – not for everyone, but for some – the way to re-enchant the Universe, the way to resurrect transcendent Wonder, is to renounce belief in a monotheistic God … and thereby to take a vow as a “None”.


o … that they are simply "between" such forms, rituals, and institutions – the way, e.g., a free-lance software contractor is sometimes “between” jobs -- and that, having forsaken one such set of forms, rituals, and institutions, they are simply marking time until they have adopted another

I have been there and bought this particular t-shirt, too.  In fact, a whole closet full.  I started out life as a kid and an early teenager as a hyper-fundamentalist Baptist.  (By hyper-fundamentalist, I mean -- I swear this is literally true -- the church, the whole denomination, believed Billy Graham was a howling, bloodshot-eyed liberal because he talked with the Pope once in a while.) From there, I transitioned to conservative evangelical, but not fundamentalist, Protestantism, i.e., we believed in the literalness of Genesis but admitted that there was an outside chance that, e.g., Jews and Buddhists would not go to hell. (That is where I discovered Francis Schaeffer.)  Thence to right-of-center, William F. Buckley, Jr.-style conservative Catholicism.  Thence to left-of-center, Berrigan-brothers, the late Fr. Richard McBrien liberal / progressive Catholicism. (That is where I un-discovered Francis Schaeffer.) Somewhere along toward the latter part -- not yet the end! -- of that process, I discovered vipassana ("mindfulness") meditation, Buddhism ... and, in a kind of Asian equivalent of St. Paul's Damascus Road experience, the ten ox-herding paintings.  I have come to believe that anyone who questions and who seeks honestly and with no self-imposed limitations on what there is to be discovered in the process will eventually -- though it may very well take decades -- end up in the same place as Gandhi who, questioned about what he, as a Hindu, was doing hob-nobbing with Muslims and Christians, responded by saying, yes, he was a Hindu, but that he was also a Muslim, a Christian, a Jew, and a Buddhist.  So herewith yet another paradox to add to our already-growing collection:  by taking the vow to become a "None", one also takes the vow to become an "All".  ("The way up and the way down are one and the same" -- Heracleitus) And one more correlative paradox:  one does not have to believe in any god to affirm that "In my Father's house are many mansions" (John 14:2, KJV).


So what does it mean to respond "None" to questions of religious preference? What does it mean to take the vow of a "None"? As I used to tell my systematic theology and Church-history students back in the days when I was doing my practicum teaching for the MDiv, if someone asks you a theological question and you find yourself at a loss for an answer, stroke your chin slowly, frown, and say It all depends. You will always be right.  That is my answer now:  It all depends.

For God -- so to speak -- is in the details.

James R. Cowles

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