Nick: I went to church this morning, like you suggested.
Theo: Interesting. Did you have an urge to get closer to God or something.
Nick: I was walking around Boston. Nothing was open, which reminded me it was Sunday and I thought of your suggestion. I wouldn’t say I wanted to get closer to God, though. But when I’m in nature, I can get this strong sense of serenity from the trees and the rivers, and every once in a while I can get that same feeling from being in a church — from the architecture of an old church, a choir, and a sermon that’s not too preachy.
Theo: Yeah, that’s an urge to get closer to God.
Nick: I guess if that’s what you want to call it… I certainly don’t want to get closer to some supreme mind. I don’t even believe in one.
Theo: You know, the phrase “supreme mind” doesn’t make any sense to me, really. And I don’t think it matters that it doesn’t. Whatever someone means when they use the word “supreme” and word “mind,” I’m sure that God is far beyond those little meanings. If your experience in nature wasn’t with what you would call a supreme mind, then I wouldn’t use that phrase. But, I still think those experiences in nature are about getting closer to whatever it is that I mean when I use the word “God.”
Nick: Well if that’s all that church is — inducing serenity or thoughtfulness or community — I think I would want to go every week. I love feeling reflective with a big group. That seems wonderful to me. But, I can’t imagine any church accepting the fact that I’m an atheist. And plus, I’m not particularly moved by most dogmas.
Theo: I don’t think you are an atheist, Nick. I think that word does a lot of work for you. It announces to people that you’re outside religion — that you’re critical of religion. But, you seem to be interested in returning to certain kinds of experiences that religion… well, that religion does, so to speak. If I may, I think that part of your thinking here is that the word “atheist” implies “skepticism.” I would say that many religions treat skepticism with respect. I would think that skepticism and faith are strange allies in the sense that we must acknowledge that faith can be pretty stupid sometimes. It is, after all, blind. And skepticism can be valuable to us. If nothing else, it keeps us from getting too ahead of ourselves. So, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with entering a religion from the position of skeptic.
Nick: Skepticism, perhaps. I would be concerned that the only way to really experience something like, speaking in tongues or the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist for example, I would need to abandon my rationality.
Theo: I appreciate that. I think there are a lot experiences that we humans go through in the course of life that can’t possibly make sense to someone before they have themselves gone through it. The death of a loved one, for example. Sex. Love. German porn. You can imagine these things, you can even pretend to know something about them, but until you’ve gone through the experience, it’s almost meaningless. You can even look back on people who haven’t quite been there yet and they seem like lost puppies in a Home Depot. I suppose my point in this is to suggest that there is a sort of hiddenness about the truth of these experiences. I would suggest that the experience inside rituals is very much like that: from the outside, without having gone through it, they seem stupid and, frankly, they should seem stupid. Your skepticism should give you all the insight you need to know that most rituals are dumb. But, at the same time, you also don’t use the vocabulary of a religion, so you can’t really recognize what’s going on in a ritual. And you haven’t really begun to place God within rituals. They probably seem like empty, hollow theater to you.
Nick: Yes, they do. But, it’s not like I can’t see the profundity it has with people, and I feel like I would want to experience that too, of course, I don’t want to limit myself from any positive experience. But, I feel like I can’t be pluralistic and religious at the same time. I would have to reject entire religions in order to get the most out of one religion. I couldn’t, for example, extract the most profound lessons of Islam and Christianity and Daoism and be authentic to all three, while maintaining my allegiance to science and reason and all that crap.
Theo: I entirely agree. I don’t want to suggest that there isn’t something beautiful and true within Islam and Daoism. And there is a great deal of stupidity and ugliness to be encountered in Christianity. There are lessons and experiences to be found in most religious traditions. I would suggest to you that there are times in the religious life when, perhaps, it is appropriate to close certain doors behind you. This happens in all walks of life, when we make decisions about our career, which college we’re going to go to, and who we’re going to marry. I don’t think it’s in inappropriate or limiting. I think it’s an act of love. We want to offer up exclusivity, for example, to our spouse. We want to belong to a group and not to others on purpose. And you have even suggested that nature holds a special place in your spiritual life — not to the exclusion of other venues or experience, but because of a real love for dirt and fish or whatever
Nick: So, do you think religious plurality is compatible with religious passion?
Theo: To a certain extent, I think so. In certain ways compatible and in other ways incompatible. Certainly, at the beginning of the journey of the religious life, it would be foolish to prematurely dismiss anything. But, at the same time, I don’t think that you should have any pretensions about living the life of a perfect Christian and the life of perfect Muslim at once. I think there are going to be times when you will be asked to make commitments to a religion, commitments that you can’t make to two religions. But, that’s a long way off.
Nick: So it’s not that I should refrain from religion, it’s that I should be ultra-religious, I should absorb as much of it as possible. At least the good bits.
Theo: That’s certainly a way to start out. Religion, of course, is not as simple as the “good bits.” In order to fully participate in a religion — to get the most out of it — you have to become familiar with the vocabulary at hand, which can get pretty complicated. But, more importantly, religion is asking to become transformative in your life.
Nick: Makes me think about languages. When I first stated learning Spanish I remember that I would just translate everything into English in my head. That’s how I would communicate with Spanish speakers. Then after a while it became natural, and I would think and dream in Spanish. It even got to the point when there were Spanish words that were unable to be translated. There were some words that just made sense in Spanish, but not in English. I guess you could say I currently want to translate religious experiences into a secular language, but in order to really experience it, there might not be a secular word for it. I need to become bilingual.
Theo: It isn’t hard to imagine some snarky soul suggesting that one day, the secular sciences might come up with ways to recreate all the experiences available to us through religion. I’m not sure how likely that is or what I would think about it. But, I’m inclined to say that if there really is a way for science to bring us closer to God, then I’m all for it.
Nick: So what’s next then?
Theo: I think you should pick a church, even at random, and give it a shot. We can talk about it if you want as you go along, but take a religion out for a test drive and see what happens.
Nick: I’ll do that. And we can reconvene then.