Tuesday, January 23, 2007

So near, and yet so far

William R. Murry‘s article, “Reason and reverence“, in the Winter 2006 issue of UU World, discusses his faith, which he describes as humanistic religious naturalism . What he describes is so close to what I, and many other Neopagans believe... and yet, so very far.

Most Pagan faiths share the Humanist beliefs in social commitment and personal responsibility. Having rejected the concept of a “savior”, we have no one to take the blame for us- we have to accept the consequences of our actions. Having no savior, Pagans know they must work for the betterment of society; we’re not waiting for someone else to come and do it for us. Most Neopagans share the Religious Naturalism perspective that finds religious meaning in the natural world, as do a great many of the classic Non-Abrahamic faiths, from Shinto to Native American. Where we all differ from the classic Humanist or Mr. Murry’s Religious Naturalism is his rejection of a supernatural realm, or a supernatural God/s/dess.

He does say that he is a theist; but that his God belongs to the natural universe, rather than a supernatural deity. I think part of the difference is in the definition of “supernatural”, as my deity, too, belongs to the natural universe- but does not resemble his. When a modern Pagan, or indeed a modern theist of most any stripe says “natural” and “supernatural”, they mean “that which is understood”, and “that which is not understood”. When a modern atheist, or post-modern theist of Mr. Murry’s variety uses those words, they mean “that which is understood”, and “that which is fantastic in concept; non-existent”. For the first type of theist, the Divine is (or can be) an actual being, a non-human sentience; for the post-modern theist, the Divine is a vague “force of creation”, or more often “love”. To this kind of theist, an actual being would be “supernatural”, and therefore nonexistent.

This produces a conundrum for the post-modern theist that is clearly revealed in his article. He speaks of the importance of reverence; it is the fourth of his five characteristics a viable future religion must have. He says, “...but it is only reverence, understood as feelings of respect and awe, that can save us from the hubris that would destroy all the good we have accomplished.”, and “...a religion without a profound sense of reverence is no religion at all.” Exactly so. But nowhere does he explain, or even hint at the OBJECT of his reverence, his respect, his awe. As he quotes Carl Sagan at the end, one can infer that it is the universe itself he so reveres- but that seems a bit weak to base an entire religion on, doesn’t it? The stars are pretty, therefore I must change my life and work for others? It might be God he reveres, but given his only description of God, “...power of creativity, an immanent force for good in the world, or simply as mystery.”, that hardly seems like the object of a reverence so deep that it “...can save us from the hubris that would destroy all the good we have accomplished.”

Of course, he must remain vague, as any explanation of the object of such words as “faith”, “worship”, “reverence”, etc., would of necessity involve a definition of what he means by “God”, which means tap-dancing around the Humanist insistence that reason denies the existence of a living God. I believe there are two causes for this insistence that reason denies the existence of a living Divinity: 1. Misunderstanding the limits of reason. “Reason”, “Rationality”, or any human logic system is a mental construct to try to understand the universe- it is not the universe itself. When reason and reality conflict, it is “reason” that must yield, not reality. I discuss this here and here To those who still can find no room for a living God, I say first explain Dark Energy and Dark Matter , and then tell me how we know too much to believe. 2. Misunderstanding the nature of and limitations of the Divine. This, I believe, is Mr. Murry’s error.

Mr. Murry cannot see the hand of the Divine in nature. He sees the fact that “nature’s rain falls on the just and the unjust” not as the evidence of the Divine’s unconditional love, but as proof that “Nature knows nothing of justice, love, kindness, or generosity.” It seems that he buys into the fundamentalists’ concept of a judgmental God who punishes with natural disasters, and rewards by saving one from those same disasters. The only God he was looking for was an angry God. There are other visions of God- I discuss some of mine here He goes on to say that it is Humanism that “...provides the values that naturalism lacks.” This seems to me to be running very close to the hubris he himself warns against when he speaks of reverence.

The theist who believes in a Living Deity is caught between two forces: the background culture that insists on the false choice of either the God of Abraham, or atheism; and the Humanist who insists on the false choice of either reason or a “supernatural” God, but not both. Oddly enough, it is the second sort who cause me more grief in my daily life. With every passing year- almost every passing day- there are fewer and fewer Christians who would call me a devil-worshipper and attack me. If they do, I have the first amendment to protect me. If push comes to shove, I have the second amendment, too. (no, I’m not a fluffy bunny pagan) But there are plenty of Humanists and/or atheists in my congregation and my denomination who have no patience for anyone who does not see things their way, and are often not shy about announcing it, either.

Mr. Murry speaks of “A new humanism is emerging among Unitarian Universalists,...a religious humanism that offers depth, meaning, and purpose without sacrificing intellectual honesty or the spiritual dimension.” I hope that this is not another declaration of war on theism, but fear from some past experiences that it will become exactly that. I, too, refuse to sacrifice intellectual honesty; I will not write off my, and many others, transcendental experiences as temporary insanity. (as some oh-so-tolerant UUs have described them) I will not be ashamed of saying grace or any other ritual that deepens my connection to the Divine. I welcome the emergence of Humanistic religious naturalism as a new faith tradition, and hope that when he said “...and a profound respect for others.”, he meant respecting theists, too. If he does, perhaps UU will become the “viable religion of the twenty-first century” he seeks.


LaReinaCobre said...

This is a really good post. I need to re-read it tomorrow after the first read has had some time to percolate.

The bit about "the supernatural" interested me. I read most of "Reason and Reverence" (but stopped partway through - it got a little too tangled with my thoughts from your post, which I'd read first).

When I read Murry's statement that humanists reject supernatural things, I questioned that. I'm a spiritual humanist, and the primary reason for this is that I do believe human beings have something we like to refer to as a soul. And I also believe that there are some experiences we may have as individuals (or communities) which cannot be scientifically predicted. This doesn't make them unreal.

The thing is, I choose not to expect anything of the "supernatural" world, or deities of any kind. But me choosing not to have a deep relationship with those things that I don't understand doesn't mean they don't exist.

I'll have to finish reading Murry's article later, but for the moment I'm left wondering why he doesn't take into account that a humanist might hold your definition of supernatural.

It's not important to me whether a person talks to spirits, trees, or Jesus - every person's spiritual experience needs to be accorded respect. It's once they start saying, "my spiritual experience is the RIGHT one" that I become wary. Unfortunately, many humanists have a tendency to say, "Well, I've never experienced any of this stuff, therefore no one has - and if they say so, they're delusional or lying."

This is no better than institutionalized religions dictating to their practitioners what a valid and approved relationship with their god looks like.

I'm not sure if this makes much sense; I'm extremely tired, but wanted to comment before I went to sleep.

Lilylou said...

I read this post with great interest too, Joel. And like Lareinacobre, I will save it and reread it, as well as the references/links you inserted. Thank you for adding to my knowledge and provoking my thinking. It made me think about things I hadn't noticed in Murry's article.

Joel Monka said...

Thank you both! As you can probably tell, this is an important issue for me, and I'll be writing more in the near future.