We live in the bubble of the present. We see clearly here some of what is around us. Our science and our engineering is brilliant. We are the real magicians, the ultimate alchemists. Outside the bubble of the present we see much less clearly. Indeed, we argue strenuously about even the recent past, about what actually happened, and what it means for now, and meant then.
The bubble of the present floats in uncomfortable and fearful waters. We don't know where we came from. True, we see a development in structures that lets us trace our physical ancestry from other, often simpler biological life forms. But we have no idea why they, or we, actually exist. Sentience has appeared for no obvious reason.
Neither do we know where we go, or if there is any direction or purpose to this existence. Religious cosmologies (of various levels of fantasy and absurdity) abound, but science can say little, apart from point out the obvious, which is that it is very hard to conceive of consciousness surviving apart from the chemical processes we see supporting it in living beings. Science, properly and helpfully, has shown the shortcomings in the old cosmologies, but has no new answers. The best we can hope for is a limited few years of life as the species charts its own destiny. Most humans will be unconscious of the reality, be poor and suffer much. Even the briefest "scientific" discussion irresistibly leaks into the language of cosmology and theology. The scientific method does not stretch very far into the realm of meaning.
Religious perspectives are able to go beyond science. They are not bound by the limitations the scientific method places upon itself. While this opens them to the charge of partiality and a lack of rigour, it also frees them of the essentially religious dogma of those who try to use science to rule out any transcendence of the material - (as though we know what the material is any more.) But the cosmologies become move speculative as they proceed further from our bubble of what is in the present.
However, the little bubble of today is something about which me have a surprising amount of agreement! Consider words like love, justice, compassion, honesty, truth, decency, friendship, and respect... they are universally held in high esteem. Not only are they at the centre of our various religious traditions, but our common experience is that these things are good. Cynical we may be, and differences we may hold, but we know these are worthwhile ideals, and we aspire to them.
I am a Christian. As I read my tradition, I see that these ideals are raised to the highest level. To be sure, there is an interpretation of the past which informs them. There are hopes and visions for a better future. There is an underlying cosmology and understanding of God which they sit upon. But the out workings of the Gospel of Jesus Christ are surprisingly loosely bound to their particular historical and cultural provenance. They bear uncommon similarities to the highest human ideals of Buddhism or Islam. We humans are strangely consistent in our best response to divine Showings, wherever, and whoever we are. Even if one feels obliged to lay out a systematic theological system- even one which highlights the differences from another, when all is said and done, there is a remarkably simple core to it all. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and mind and strength and spirit, and love your neighbour as yourself. On these two sayings hang all the Law and the Prophets. Or in the common piety of today: ''What would Jesus do?'
This is an unsafe faith for today, for it unerringly, unalterably, and unequivocally stands against injustice, self interest and dishonesty. If constantly challenges the powers that be and invites their unpleasant attention. It is hard work. It requires the boredom and non-excitement of persistence; it is not entertainment, unlike so much of current western culture. It does not have the thrill of esoteric knowledge of the inside dressed up in the latest theological fad. It demands hard work. It is constantly under attack from those who have sold out to power or money, and from those who are in fear of the powerful, and seek to appease them with on easy salvation and a cheap grace.
And yet, facing our agnosticism and doubt about the grand cosmologies of the past, and the spiritual poverty and intimidation we feel in the face of the extravagant claims of cheap grace, or the threats of the powerful; this is a safe faith. It is the safest faith for it sits solidly and soundly at the centre of religious practice. For it glories in faithful persistence. It lives in the ethic of Jesus and of the Buddha, and of every worthwhile tradition, for it lives in compassion and justice. Whatever may come, it stands within the best human experience has to offer. It lives the life of the prophets and the saints. It bears good fruit.
November 28 2006
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