Sunday, June 24, 2007

The Middle Way

Yesterday my wife and I had brunch on our back porch with a lovely couple half our age who are both committed to helping people and making the world a better place. Each has a master's degree in social work. He also has a master's degree in divinity (and is an ordained minister) and she plans to pursue a doctorate in women's studies after completing her final year of law school.

After we'd eaten all of the pastries and drunk all of the coffee, the girls went to sit on the glider with Wally and we boys remained at the table and talked about what he was doing as a social worker in children's protective services. The cases he described were harrowing to me, young children who have already been so sexually damaged either from abuse directly suffered or from just being in a depraved environment that their prospects for ever attaining a more or less normal life seem bleak indeed.

I can't quite remember, alas, how we sequed onto religion, but I guess, given our backgrounds, that it was inevitable. I summarized for him my metaphysical principle that the seminal contradiction at the heart of the cosmos (God's freedom) makes all things possible, in particular miracles that contravene the laws of nature. And I recounted the walk on which my learned poet friend had stated that he "believed all things but held onto none." We agreed in endorsing "believing all things" as a necessary expression of what we might call religious humility. We don't know whether or not what we take on faith is so, nor do we know that what others take on faith is not so. Therefore, neither should we hold onto our articles of faith, nor should they hold onto theirs—"hold onto" in the sense that we or they combine forces and go into politics in order to force beliefs and practices onto anyone else.

Of course, that holding onto is happening to a very great extent in the world today. We've got the fundamentalist Christians in America banding together to help put an abomination like George W. Bush in the White House and Tricky Dick Deuce (as Maureen Dowd calls Dick Cheenie today in The New York Times) in the chair of the President of the United States Senate. We've got so-called Islamic jihadists blowing up things, including not only Americans who believe they're trying to help but also mosques and members of other Muslim sects. We've got imams provoked yet again by Salman Rushdie—this time by his being knighted—to call for reprisals against those associated with his knighting. Holding on, holding on. And believing nothing but that they and they alone are right.

You know already (if you've been reading me) that I don't agree with Christopher Hitchens that "religion poisons everything." But if any one thing does poison everything, I submit that it's that unwarranted holding onto things that we only believe but do not know. Hitchens attacks religion as being the primary repository of such beliefs. He may be right in that, but it's the holding onto (the trying to foist onto others) that is the problem, not the beliefs per se.

I told my young friend that I was reminded by this of Jesus's advice to "render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's." In other words, keep your religious beliefs and practices out of politics. Yes, said my young friend. "For me, Jesus stands for a balance of the spiritual and the physical." He explained that the fundamentalist "hangers onto" are just one end of the spectrum.

At the other end of the spectrum are the mystically oriented individuals who jump off into the spirit world and maybe even believe that they are "one with the universe." My friend knows about that, for he tried to swim out there for a couple of years himself. He said it's a dangerous place. The universe includes the food chain, "Nature red in tooth and claw" (Tennyson), and the death of suns and of any life on the planets in their orbit.

Pursuing the spiritual alone, he said, is like wading into quicksand. You'll be lost if you persist in going it alone. You need at least one friend (he recommends no fewer than five*) to keep you from going under. He now takes the middle way. As a social worker, he's helping individuals in dire need, recognizing that such victims will be produced in perpetuity unless there be a radical reformation of the cultural, educational, social, political system that now produces them.

I told him I doubted that such a reformation would ever happen. He reminded me, I said, of Loren Eiseley's "star thrower"—the man who rescued individual starfish stranded on the beach by throwing them back into the ocean. A scoffer told the man that there are millions of stranded starfish in the world and throwing one back into the ocean isn't going to make a difference. The man said it made a difference to the one starfish he threw back.
* Five may have been the minimum support group number recommended also by Paul Goodman in that 1960's debate I've described between Goodman and the Reverend William Sloane Coffin, Jr. at Yale.


  1. A scoffer told the man that there are millions of stranded starfish in the world and throwing one back into the ocean isn't going to make a difference. The man said it made a difference to the one starfish he threw back.(I heard this a long time ago. It always makes my heart warm and brings a smile to my lips.)

  2. The man said it made a difference to the one starfish he threw back. Sure can't argue with that. And why would anyone want to?

    Another thoughtful post, Morristotle, per usual.

    At the other end of the spectrum are the mystically oriented individuals who jump off into the spirit world and maybe even believe that they are "one with the universe."....Pursuing the spiritual alone, he said, is like wading into quicksand. You'll be lost if you persist in going it alone.

    In part, I think the individual mystery journey some embark on and the modern athiest movement stems from a common motivation: an absolute disgust at what meddling religions have wrought. Some react through atheism, but the ones who can't quite "throw the baby out with the bathwater" go on their own self-defined spiritual journey.

    "Religion poisons everything," I agree with you, is a gross generalization. But I would never contest that it poisons a great deal. But what does that prove? Does the abundance of counterfeit money prove there is no such thing as real money?

  3. Tom, you seem, by your counterfeit money example, to be saying not that religion poisons a great deal, but that some religions poison a great deal...or I guess you're asking: Does the abundance of poisoning religions prove that there's no religion that doesn't poison? What is it about the poisoning religions that makes them so, and, if you think that there actually is a non-poisoning religion, what is it about it that makes it so?

  4. Um, (blush) I guess you know where I stand as regards to which religion I think is "right."

    I stand where I do for several reasons, but the one most relevent to your post concerns "poisoning."

    I grant you that many people disagree with our views, sometimes vehemently so. They find our visits annoying, and they say so. However, after being turned down, Jehovah's Witnesses go away. They don't afterwards try to force you to their practices through legislative means, much less through violent means. (of course, they come back in time, but even then, it's just speech, no more)

    Radical faiths are prone to resort to violence. Mainline faiths resort to politics. Either method, to use that extreme expression, "poisons" everything from the point of view of those having different beliefs that they would like respected.

    We have pronounced views, to be sure. But we don't "poison" anything, unless one considers the mere exercise of free speech to be "poisonous." In this country, people generally do not. And the Courts, even the Supreme Court, traditionally has not.

  5. Thanks, Tom. Sorry to quibble about the application of your analogy. If you're right that there's something about JW, qua religion, that prevents it from becoming poisonous, then my analysis may be flawed. That is, there may not be something extra that gets added to "religion" (in general) to toxify it. Unless, perhaps, there are or have been instances of individual Witnesses who have added it to their own practice and hence done some poisoning?

    I guess, if a particular religion has an article of faith that its followers must go out and proselytize, then...Hmmm...[that's an indication that I have further thinking to do, not a challenge to you, my friend].

  6. Morris:

    i didn't quite follow the application of your first paragraph. Clarify?

  7. Tom, your counterfeit analogy ("Does the abundance of counterfeit money prove there is no such thing as real money?") suggested to me that you were making a distinction between religion in general (or "qua religion") and particular religions. That is, that you were saying that some religions (the counterfeit ones?) do poison things, but that others (the real ones?) just don't at all. And, of course, you seemed to be giving JW as an example of the latter.

    I was just saying that if that's true, then my "analysis" (that there's something about any religion—that is, qua religion—that can lead it to poison things, but it isn't necessarily the religion per se, rather it's the way people use it or apply it or pervert it to other ends, such as political, personal power, whatever)...then my analysis seemed to be wrong. I was trying to see where Hitchens's "religion poisons everything" might be coming from, in his assumed (by me) confusion of religion (qua religion) and the uses to which "bad people" put it.

    I doubt that this clarifies things for you, but maybe it does.

    This is where my subsequent posts about "religious tyranny" came from. I'm assuming, somewhat pollyannaishly, I guess, that "true religion" is positive and beneficial and that expressions of it that have been tyrannical have been perversions, acts of men not flowing from its original creative inspiration.

    Ironically (I was thinking today, after the interchanges yesterday with Maliha), many people who think of themselves as upstanding and religious (they go to church every Sunday, for example, and maybe even to prayer services or whatever during the week) seem to me to be hardly religious at all, in a deep, spiritual sense. They seem more into rituals, gaining points from going through prescribed activities, etc.

    And it occurs to me now that the quantity (curious word in this context) of "truly spiritual experience" on the planet in any given day is probably miniscule, certainly miniscule in proportion to the pure cant and balderdash of self-deluded "religious" people.

    Again, what is "ironic" about this is that I'm talking about supposedly religious people, not the atheists and skeptics and intellectuals against whom Maliha (if I understood her aright) was railing.

    Oh, my, I seem to have gone off the deep end....

  8. Okay. I guess I get your point. And agree with you. But it may be academic only.

    Did we cover this ground ages ago? Perhaps in that flurry of comments accompanying your Religion Survey? If not, we got close to it.

    Two religions in Nazi Germany comprised 90% of the population. If even one of them (and certainly if both) had taken the same stand Jehovah's Witnesses took, Hitler would have gone down in history as a flailing disruptive madman who wrought relatively little harm. If religion is maneuvered into atrocities by cynical people, as opposed to taking the inititive themselves.....well, I guess that's a little better. But only a little. In such cases, religions have not committed a crime of commision. But they've committed a crime of omission, and the end result is pretty much the same.

    Religion should make one a decent, better, more peaceable person. If it does not, then one might reasonably ask: what good is it?

    Those atheists have a powerful point, IMO. Only problem is they paint with too broad a brush and throw the baby out with the bathwater.

  9. Tom, Excellent points! Including that my distinctions are probably "academic only." Even as I wrote my comment, I had the same feeling. But such distinctions help me get my thinking straight, so they have some use, to me personally at least. And, it seems to me, discussing them has had the even happier outcome (for me anyway) of demonstrating how close you and I really are, certainly in our hearts (I think), and maybe even to a great extent in our thinking, setting aside our relative estimate of the "objectivity" of scriptural revelation.

    Perhaps your best, most pertinent point is about commission and omission. It isn't enough to be clean but passive, so to speak.

    Hmm, that reminds me that indeed we DID discuss this. Something about a quote from Dante and the anecdote someone reminded us of, of how we didn't say anything when they came for the gypsies, we didn't say anything when they came for the Jews, so who's going to say anything now that they're coming for us?

    Good on you, Tom my brother. And thanks for helping me see more clearly.