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.