I am sure that 144 comments does not qualify as “going viral” in the real blog world. But in my little corner of blog land the 144 comments accumulated on my December 10, 2010 post, is a firestorm of attention.
For the past three weeks, a small cyber community of believers, agnostics and atheists from around North America have carried on a remarkable conversation attached to my “Talking With Atheists” post – http://inaspaciousplace.wordpress.com/2010/12/10/talking-with-atheists/
For the most part the conversation has been conducted with gratifying respect, mutual tolerance, and openness. The tone of the discussion provides a refreshing model of the possibilities when people come together with a genuine desire to learn from one another and to grow in their understanding of different ideas.
The conversation was most intensely triggered by my comparison of atheists with fundamentalists. Clearly, the comparison was unfair. Atheists come in varied hues as do people of faith. There are close-minded, narrow, bigoted, aggressive atheists, just as much as there are people of faith who could be described the same way. As is clearly evident in the comments section of my original post, there are also open minded, accepting, thoughtful atheists, agnostics, and believers.
No matter what our faith, we all fall somewhere on the spectrum between fixed convictions at one end and complete uncertainty about everything at the other. It is most difficult for those at either end of the spectrum to enter into deep conversation with those at the opposite extreme.
Having observed the conversation on my blog, it seems there is a challenge for people of faith entering into conversation with people who reject belief in anything beyond the physical material realities that can be perceived by the five senses through which we normally process the world.
The foundational conviction for people who believe in the existence of a transcendent reality we call “God,” is that there is a dimension of existence beyond that which can be perceived by taste, touch, sight, sound, or smell. This dimension of reality transcends the realm that can be adequately explored by reason, thought, intellect, or human language. God can never be contained by verbal formulations, or rational constructs. God cannot be reduced to human logic.
This makes conversation difficult between those who perceive no reality beyond the rational and those whose experience leads them to the conviction that existence is not confined to the material, physical, rational plane.
The person who affirms a realm beyond the material is always open to the criticism of being irrational and failing to apply rigorous laws of logic. On the other side, the person who, simply because it is not their experience, rejects the deep inner experience of those who affirm the divine, risks appearing narrow-minded and bigoted.
Mystical tradition has always understood the inadequacy of language and reason to capture the deepest realities of life.
Bede Griffiths the great Benedictine monk who spent his adult life in southern India attempting to forge links between Christians and Hindus, spoke well for all spiritual traditions when he wrote,
We can use words and thoughts to point towards the unmanifest but we cannot properly express it, and all sacred doctrine is of that character. The truth itself cannot properly be expressed. The Spirit, the Self, the ultimate Reality, is beyond words and thoughts and beyond change. (River of Compassion: A Christian Commentary on the Bhagavad Gita)
The great divide in the conversation about “ultimate Reality” is between those who believe their thoughts, words, and logic are adequate to encompass the totality of reality, and those who accept the profound limitations of all human knowing. For those who acknowledge the limits of the intellect and the parameters of logic, the horizon of mystery begins to open and we find ourselves traveling in the expansive terrain of faith.
In the beautiful introduction to his anthology of Western mysticism, English literature scholar Patrick Grant, writes powerfully of this other dimension of life that people of a spiritual bent believe they perceive.
If it is true, as the mystics claim, that there is knowledge beyond discourse and vision beyond images, then such knowledge is impossible to describe, and it is often compared to a kind of darkness. Thus we are to discover at the heart of our abandonment in the spiritual night a wholly other kind of apprehension, which so enables us to find our way around in the dark that the heart of darkness itself becomes bright.(A Dazzling Darkness: An Anthology of Western Mysticism)
This “other kind of apprehension” contains truth and wisdom not totally knowable by reason, logic, or science. The terrain of “the spiritual night” does not contradict reason; it is not contrary to human logic, but it cannot be navigated using only these faculties. There are other faculties required to find one’s way to that place where “the heart of darkness itself becomes bright.”
The faculties that have the ability to lead us into the land of the divine are closer to the ways of knowing exercised by a child than the tight analysis of the academic world. It is not a mistake that Jesus once said,
unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.(Matthew 18:3)
Recently, I watched my three-year-old granddaughter in her swimming lessons. She was seated on the side of the pool. The teacher was in the water encouraging her pupil to jump into her arms. My granddaughter’s father stood in the water beside the teacher. I could not hear the words being exchanged but I watched my granddaughter wag her little finger persistently at the teacher and point to her father. She knew that jumping into the arms of a stranger did not feel safe. She had a deep inner wisdom that her wise parents had taught her to heed. Although she could not articulate it in words, this three-year-old knew that her father was safer, more reliable, more secure. So she clung to the truth that grounded her little being, until the teacher finally gave in and allowed her pupil to jump to daddy.
I see this wisdom again and again in small children. They perceive the importance of beauty in the world. They relish the realm of the imagination. They have no problem knowing that there is a reality beyond themselves. They accept that there is a force of goodness at the heart of the universe that holds them with tenderness and compassion. Their hearts are open to another way of knowing. They may not have the tools of reason and logic, but their knowledge is deep and profound. It burns with the brightness of wisdom that is their birthright.
The tragedy of aging is that we lose touch with the skills of this deep intuitive inner knowing. We become disconnected from that wisdom that beholds a truth that transcends reason and has the capacity to open us to the reality in the deep heart of the universe. There is no logical proof by which to persuade a person who no longer experiences this reality. There are no words that can pry open the door. The person of faith will always lose the argument when the conversation depends upon reason and logic.
It may be that the greatest failure for people of faith has been to allow ourselves to feel insecure and afraid because the realm of life in which we travel most deeply, is not entirely at the disposal of empirical evidence and scientific proof. When we attempt to defend a reality that cannot be known by reason, using the inadequate tools of the intellect, we will always be forced on the defensive.
When people of faith try to compete in the realm of reason, they abandon the territory to which their experience has brought them. There is no way, using the tools that the rational scientific “Enlightenment” has provided, to cross the great divide that rises up when we finally acknowledge the limitations of human reason. We can only live deeply in the mysterious terrain of the spirit to which generations of faith have born witness. We can only strive to open more fully to the reality of the ineffable and embrace our atheist friends with the love and compassion we discover in this place of the spirit.
People of faith need to recover the skills of a child. It is time to stop feeling bashful about our awareness that there is more to life than can be summed up in the small intellectual formulations of our brains. We need to open to the wonder and the beauty of life that can ultimately only be fully known when our words lead us to the place of mystery and silence. Here we will find God and discover that, despite our differences, we are one even with the atheist with whom we appear so to deeply disagree.