I have not posted for a couple of weeks because I was ruminating on what to say. There are a variety of issues I could write about, but I decided in the end to present, in an informal way, some general thoughts on theism, world-views, atheism, faith, science and religion.
What this blog advocates is a broadly positive stance on both science and that aspect of human life which is about refusing materialism and scientism, in favour of a richer notion of what may be said to be true and real. That lengthy expression refers, broadly, to what has often been called “religion”, but I have been cautious about the use of that word in this blog, because of all the obvious dangers and abuses that often accompany religion. I think that there is both good religion and bad religion, and in the end what I want to do in the blog is not about religion as such, but about encouraging one another to realize and live out the most complete expression of what human life is, whatever that may be.
But I am not completely neutral on the possible directions or content of the phrase “whatever that may be” here. None of us are. I am committed to the view that the most complete expression of who we are is very much about solidarity, forgiveness, wise ecology, humility, generosity, and love. One hesitates to say things like that, because it can come over as pompous or patronising, but I am ready to assume that some such list is what large numbers of people believe in or aspire to, no matter what their religious or irreligious position may be. Values like that are the sort of thing taught in our primary schools, and (sadly, with less time and attention) reflected upon in our secondary schools.
The heart of the matter is, then, not what many of our basic values are, so much as how we are going to manage to live by them. Because, much of the time, we fall pitifully short. We have, for example, a wealth of knowledge about how to provide basic living conditions such as food, water, shelter, safety and education to every person on the planet, but we are far from doing that, and most scientific endeavour most of the time is devoted to other things, such as learning fascinating aspects of physics, chemistry, biology and so on. I don’t mean to imply that the latter does not have its place, but I do mean to suggest that our culture and communal assumptions are not balanced in the right way.
There is a pair of linked issues here. First, there is the question, “how are we going to achieve a better, wiser, way of life?” And related to this is the ontology question, the question about what is true and real; it is the question “what is the truth of things, in the end? Are attitudes such as generous mutuality simply behaviour-patterns that we can buy into if we like, or are they signals or signatures of what is most real? Is the “grand unified theory” a statement about inter-particle forces, or about inter-personal relations?”
All the evidence from human history points to the fact that a good working answer to the second question helps to suggest ways forward on the first question. If we have a good idea of who we are, then we get profound encouragement and motivation to live up to who we are or can be. It seems to me that the answer to the question of who we are, or, perhaps better, who we can be, is contained in the phrase “children of God”. But that phrase needs to be unpacked because people will not know what it means.
So let me try to say briefly what I think it means.
The idea is that the physical universe is rich in layers of meaning, and is the expression of an equally rich reality. What we experience and express in our greatest art, or in moments of human sympathy and mercy, and in moments of awe inspired by the natural world when it is beautiful, and in moments of determination to do better when the natural world is ugly, are all indicators of what sources or continually creates the universe. They all act as pointers to “where we coming from”. The idea is that these personal attitudes and experiences are not just lucky froth thrown up by impersonal physical processes. Rather, they are the expression of a depth to reality; they express aspects of the real that are already every bit as genuine as an ordinary lump of wood, before ever any human being came to appreciate them.
That is what all the religious endeavours of humankind are trying to grapple with, when they are at their best.
The difference between atheism and theism (at their best) is not that they have a different ethic. About ethics they largely agree. What they have is a different ontology (the notion of what is) and this leads to a different idea of how we can chiefly live. I would describe myself as someone willing to buy into the notion that we are not just assessors, but assessed; we are not just leaders, but followers; we are not just seekers, but sought; not just merciful, but shown mercy. These sorts of thoughts get at the truth of things—I think. They are deeply liberating thoughts. But to appropriate the liberty they offer, we do have to let go of the idea that we are each a little independent centre of meaning, in charge of our own life. We are, profoundly and truthfully, not little dictators, nor little aimless robots thrown together by a whirlwind, but people whom Reality meets. And out of this realization comes our creative, grateful response, free of insecurity about our basic identity, made free to serve in the most creative ways we can think of.