I'm currently reading Huston Smith's book, Why Religion Matters. I'm not quite sure what I expect to get out of it but I have to say that as of right now I'm finding it disappointing. It seems Smith's biggest argument for why religion really matters thus far, and I am still relatively early on in the book, is not necessarily because it's true but that it provides a panacea for the masses. It provides hope and inspiration, a sense of community, those sorts of things. One could easily respond to that argument by asking a question of their own. If religion matters because of only those benefits what happens when an individual can find them via other avenues? If our personal longing for hope and meaning can be found without God or the sense of anything transcendental or spiritual to inspire us, doesn't that then render religion and spirituality irrelevant?
I suppose I shouldn't be too disappointed though. It's not as if the book was titled, "Why Religions are True" or "Why Religions are Real".
Religion claims the heart, science appeals to the intellect. But is there a way, I wonder, how a purely scientific perspective can not only help satiate the intellect's hunger for answers but also appeal to the heart's longing for meaning? All of the world's religions would undoubtedly answer with a resounding no. The Gita, especially, asserts that hope and meaning can only be found in the eternal, not the impermanent, and the scientific worldview only addresses the material world which is by default impermanent. Smith asserts that science can provide meaning more easily for the actual scientist, but not for the ordinary person. The reason being is that the scientist is actively involved in discovering the natural world as well as creating and innovating. The rest of us just bear witness to what is discovered and what is created, and there is a fundamental difference between the two experiences. Smith writes:
"...the creativeness of their vocation probably makes it easier for scientists than for most other people to create meaningful lives for themselves....[there is a] difference in fulfillment that comes from inventing the Polaroid camera, on the one hand, and buying one, on the other." p. 39
Smith quotes Ursala Goodenough in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature, when she discussed how her nature has "no Creator, no superordinate meaning of meaning, no purpose other than life's continuance. But regardless of that it still filled her with feelings of "awe and reverence".
He responds to this realization she made in her book by writing the following:
"We can be glad that it does, but how much comfort can we draw from that fact when the awe nature awakens in human beings is, like all emotions, no more than a Post-it note, so to speak, affixed to a nature that is unaware of being thus bedecked. Reverence and awe are human sentiments that extend no deeper into nature than human consciousness extends, and in a universe fifteen billion light-years across...To speak of nature's depths as sacred in themselves, without human beings imputing sanctity to those depths, is to be guilty of the anthropomorphic thinking that John Ruskin dubbed "the pathetic fallacy"-the fallacy of imputing feeling where there is none.
Goodenough's "sacredness" is in her eye, the eye of the beholder, and in the eyes of those who share her sensibilities. What is the depths of nature-its deep structure on which human sentience bobs like a rose petal on the sea-is insentient, quantifiable matter." p. 38-39
The words that immediately caught my attention in the above passage were, "but how much comfort can we draw". Those words are like a red flag that is instantly raised in my mind. Such an instinctual reaction sometimes makes me think that perhaps I'll always revert to a state of skepticism in which I cannot ultimately escape. Whenever I come across the idea of pursuing comfort when it comes to areas of spirituality and considering reality as a whole it makes me pause and incredulously ask myself, "are we looking for comfort, or are we looking for truth"? I think comfort and truth very often do run concurrently with one another but that that isn't always so. And if it isn't always so then I suppose there comes a time when we have to make a choice. To choose that path that seems steady and bright offering an undercurrent of optimism and hope or a path that is much more uncertain where you only see the entrance and whatever else awaits is unknown. Instead of an undercurrent of hope and optimism this path sometimes brings feelings of foreboding and uncertainty.
Personally, I find uncertainty unsettling and I think most people do. I feel like the uncertainty that creeps into my consciousness, whispering nagging questions that I cannot yet answer and producing doubts in areas where I finally thought I had found some conclusions, pollutes and threatens my sense of spirituality. As a defense mechanism there are times when I try to ignore these questions and thoughts that arise and loom over the castle of sand I have neatly erected by the shore, threatening to sweep it away. If only I had a stronger foundation like so many others seem to have. Those individuals I have met that are firm and convicted in their spiritual orientations. What is my problem? Am I just ultimately a hopeless skeptic?
I have found meaning in the writings of the Gita and Upanishads as well as other Vedic literature and have experienced great spiritual satisfaction in reading them. I consider them inspired sources in which I can draw both tangible transcendental truths from regarding spiritual realities as well as practical truths regarding our existence in this material world. But then there are times when something inside me seems to force me to step back, right when it seems I am almost ready to find myself in a spiritual state of conviction, and wonder,"How can any of us really know what is real?" I enter a place of uncertainty that threatens to knock me off my spiritual foundation.
I feel like such uncertainty is like entering a bottomless abyss. It is as if the human heart longs for something tangible to cling to, but it is in the letting go that it enters into genuine inquiry. This reminds me of the passage from Alan Watts' book, The Wisdom of Insecurity:
d between my heart and intellect deep within my subconscious. Sometimes one side seems to have claimed victory but then, like a phoenix, the other side rises out from seemingly nowhere and makes an appearance, casting its dark shadow on the battleground once again. No...the war isn't over...not yet!
But does any of this really have to do with the question of whether or not religion matters? I guess I do get side-tracked sometimes;continually concerning myself with whether or not I can feel or "know" with a shadow of a doubt if things are factually true which can sometimes be irrelevant as to whether or not they really matter. I do believe religion and spirituality do have their purpose and play an important role in many people's lives. Radhanath Swami, in a lecture you can view here, describes just how important of a role religion can have in people's lives:It seems like, no matter how hard I try, a battle is continually being wage
"In a very broad sense it is to transform our consciousness from arrogance to humility. From vengeance to forgiveness. From greed to generosity. And most of all, it is meant to connect us to the love within us so that we might be instruments of compassion in everything we do. This is the universal principle of religion. To absorb ourselves in the love of God and to be truly and genuinely compassionate to all living things..."
...And thinking about it that way, religion matters greatly.
Well, in the beginning of this post were some preliminary reactions I had to ideas shared early on in Huston Smith's book, Why Religion Matters. The rest of the post consists of my own personal reflections that I wrote this morning in a sort of "stream of consciousness" sort of way towards those ideas.
I'd love your thoughts! Please leave them in the comments section. Thank you!