09 December 2006

When I look at the stars, or mountains, or a wildflower, or the sea

Litlove wrote a few days ago about Religion and Spirituality and whether the two can be separated. Can one be spiritual, while being an atheist? was the question raised by a work she was reading. There are some interesting comments to that post; you should check them out. I started to post this as a comment on her blog, but I quickly realized I had more to say than a blog comment would allow. As I read her post, I started thinking about a book I read a few months ago, Simple Christian by N.T. Wright, that I have yet to write about here. One of the things I've been gnawing on since I read this book was Wright's outlining of different categorizations or concepts about God and I think it is relevant to the discussion at Litlove's. This post is not meant to be a commentary on Wright's apologetics as expressed in this book, but I do think that the classification is useful for my discussion of the question Litlove posed.

Here's my distillation of classifications Wright cites in his book:

  1. The pantheist looks at God as being everywhere, and everywhere, therefore, is God. This is a belief that everything contains at least a spark of divinity.

  2. The panentheistic view is one that everything may not be divine as such, but exists within God.

  3. The belief that God (or gods) and humankind occupy two distinct and firmly separated spaces.

  4. The belief, found Wright says in classic Judaism and early Christianity, that Heaven and Earth are NOT coterminous and that God makes his presence known on earth.

Wright actually considers pantheism and panentheism to be variations on the same theme, but I see them as decidedly distinct. I think many adherents of Christianity, while not labeling themselves as panentheists, often misconstrue that all things are within God, rather than being created by God. I think that this is produced by the faulty logic that says "God is good, therefore all things created by God are good". As Wright points out, this falls apart when you consider evil. I cannot believe that evil doesn't exit, but I've yet to get my head around how to explain its existence, even in terms of my belief in the existence of God. Maybe the existence of evil is part of the mystery of God, but I cannot see it as a part of that which is divine.

Wright discusses the belief that the godly and the human are separated by a wide gulf in both the ancient Greeks as well as the 18th century Deists. This belief, Wright writes, is quite cozy and comfortable for the well-off, but not so much if, like most of the world's population throughout history, one lives in despicable, deplorable conditions. This view, Wright points out, is prevalent both among those who call themselves Christian and those who identify as being agnostics. It is, he suggests, a view of a God who just "shrugs his shoulders" at the plight of the world. This view, I think, can leave one wondering, when one marvels at the beauty in the world, what the point is. Although often throughout my life I've believed in the distant god-figure, it does seem to be a position that is bound to leave one bewildered at one extreme, angst-ridden at the other, if one follows through to the logical end of the philosophical argument that a god would create a beautiful world and then pretty much just ignore it.

It is the last categorization around which Wright frames Simply Christian, detailing this concept in terms of the ancient Israelites, who saw this overlapping of the Godly and the Earthly manifested in the Temple. This idea of God's presence in the world provides a framework that I hadn't considered previously, not that I haven't recognized before what I would call God's presence. I can best describe it as a Venn diagram, where Heaven is the space where the sphere of God or the Godhead overlaps with humankind's sphere of existence. Obviously, in terms of Christian theology, one can talk about how the "Temple" of the ancient Israelites has been replaced with the temple of Christ. But, I've most often heard Christians talk of Jesus Christ as the temple as being the bridge between heaven and earth, not as the intersection. I like this idea of intersecting, overlapping spheres. It makes more sense to me in many ways and brings a different perspective to the idea of communion and relationship with God and others, to the metaphor of God's kingdom on earth, and to the concept of eternity, with God being outside of time. It is this intersection where ethics makes sense in the Christian tradition; by doing what is right (following the rule to love God and love your neighbor has yourself) we are brought into relationship with each other and with the Divine.

So, how does this relate to Litlove's question? (Go read it now, if you haven't yet & want the rest of this to make sense.) I would say that spirituality within atheism cannot exist. What is it that one would be trying to attain through the atheistic meditation on nature of which Litlove's French philosopher wrote? I understand the mystical feeling that many get when they commune with nature. When I behold beauty in the natural world, I experience a spiritual connection with nature -- and with God. But it is just one way. It is not the only place I find that Godly/Earthly intersection. It is more difficult -- after all, when was the last time you were betrayed by a flower, had an argument with a tree -- but we should be able to find that same kind of communion with people as well. When we just look for the mystical in nature, we don't find God in all of the Divine's dimensions, and we overlook how we have gaps, divisions, wide gulfs that seem impossible to bridge, with our fellow humans.

Spirituality is different than religion; one is the continuing path to understanding the godly, the other the organized corporate practice of worship and the codification of beliefs, including how one individually should seek and follow a righteous, ethical and spiritual path. Meditation, for some, may be a part of that journey, but I can't conceive of it as being separate from spirituality. When one meditates upon beauty as found in the natural world and finds it a spiritual experience, one need to consider whether they are communing with the Divine as nature, with the Divine within nature, or nature as a manifestation of the Divine.

Litlove wrote: "So what I think this French author is doing is taming and domesticating the mystical experience, trying to make it into something pocket-sized and practical....[B]ut if there is a God, then I can‚’t help but feel he‚’s bound up in what we might refer to as Glory, as a form of beauty and awe that exceeds the quotidian imaginings of humanity, and that nourishes our sense of excess and the extraordinary." I couldn't agree more. But I don't think that the point of such a mystical experience, as the French atheist posited, is to understand our place in the whole of the cosmos and to accept life as is. As BikeProf commented on Litlove's post, such a position simply finds different words to express the same experience.

As another commenter on Litlove's blog, Mark, wrote: ....some merit to spirituality in a purely aesthetic sense, but I’m not sure if it‚’s not missing an essential quality of religion - duty". In the context of ethics, I think this is also true. Apart perhaps from ethical questions regarding the right use of natural resources, I don't think that meditation on the aesthetics of nature will inspire ethical thinking. Is the sense of awe and of being part of a universe bigger than one's ego something that will evoke the mystical in the midst of nature when nature is destructive -- wild animals seeking and killing prey, the tornado or hurricane or blinding snowstorm relentlessly unleashing its unyielding destructive and random power? How many of us in Western society, living far from Indian Ocean fishing villages and not having considered the potential reality of a tsunami, were not bewildered by the death and destruction of the 2004 Asian Tsunami? I can't believe that awe at nature's power at any level spurred the humanitarian outpouring following that event. Although such destruction can make one question the presence of a benevolent and loving deity, one would not find the answer to why such things happen -- or the right thing to do -- in nature. One doesn't need to appreciate the aesthetics of the natural world to know that the ethical thing is to help one's fellow human. While humanitarian help does not necessarily need to be an act brought about by religion or spiritual awareness (and often it is not), I am doubtful that aid to someone in need is done because of an ethic found by meditating on the beauty of nature.

Putting aside all of the arguments about how evil has been perpetrated in the guise of religion throughout the centuries -- the examples are not limited to just one religion -- I think that there is something fundamentally wrong with looking at religion as something that humans have outgrown because we have laws to support a common ethical standard. If that were the case, wouldn't we have moved beyond the horrors that are constant throughout history: poverty, war, tyranny? How many humans are really in communion with others? Such an arguments suggests that we are not only more knowledgeable about ourselves and the physical world than our ancestors, but also that we are wiser. To believe so is not wisdom, but foolishness.


polaris said...

That was a thought-provoking read, Cam. I think that the thoughts in your post are logically consistent within the confines of your definition of spirituality as "the continuing path to understanding the godly". This definition is a good one, especially for a believer, and probably also for an agnostic. It also represents the entirety of your post in miniature, because it excludes an atheist from having a spiritual experience.

Speaking from my (atheistic) view, I don't have negative reactions to this definition, but I sure am puzzled because, according to this definition, all the experiences which I hitherto thought were spiritual, turn out not to have been so. There is no doubt that, while having such an experience (perhaps in an astronomy workshop, or during a musical performance) I clearly felt something. For it to be spiritual, you say, I have to acknowledge the existence of the Divine, whatever That may be. My unwillingness to acknowledge the Divine makes my experience non-spiritual.

Outside semantics, this matters little, because very few of us would lose any sleep over the classification of the experience as spiritual or non-spiritual - so long as we are able to rightfully claim that the experience was, in some way *amazing* or *insightful*. This is why I have no problem with your definition. Now, if someone implied that a believer's experience is more amazing or more insightful or more intense or more useful than that of a non-believer, I would start having a few problems with that ;-).

litlove said...

Cam this is a very rich and fascinating post and one I think I will return to again to try and help get my thoughts clear for my research. Thank you for taking what I was doing to a whole new level!

Anonymous said...

I think I just lost a comment. oops. But all I said was that Wright's book sounds very interesting -- thanks for the intriguing post!