Knowing and Unknowing, Continued

Will Joyner

In the previous issue of the Bulletin (autumn 2006), I commented that the tension between religious belief and the often overloaded, or inappropriately loaded, concept "reason" is, in effect, at the core of every edition of the magazine that we produce. As we have prepared this Winter 2007 edition, that comment has echoed through my mind in a way that's frankly dispiriting (it's tempting to see the spate of "new atheism" best sellers as so misrepresentative of religion as to be laughable, fleeting, ignorable) but also constructively troubling. Hence, the "continued" tag on the headline above.

In trying to navigate the gulf of understanding between religious believers and agnostic or atheist believers, it's important not to set up a kind of cosmic tote board.

The God Delusion, by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, has come to represent most loudly, and crudely, the notion that religion is the primary root of evil in the world today. There have been several thorough critiques of this book that have exposed the willful flaws of Dawkins's disingenuous line of argument—the best of these, in my view, was written for a recent issue of The New York Review of Books by H. Allen Orr, a biology professor at the University of Rochester, and I urge everyone to read that essay at the NYRB website. The Dawkins book itself, though, is not as troubling to me as responses such as that of a well-educated, agnostic friend of mine who, without having read The God Delusion, said to me, "Well, I'm sure Dawkins exaggerates, but he does have a point about religion—look at Iraq."

What the Bulletin can do best in this increasingly skewed, Alice in Wonderland-like atmosphere is at least three-fold. First, we can showcase the work of scholars who are careful and anything but glib in showing the long, complicated, and often-inspiring history of the "faith-reason" tension. In this regard, you'll find in the following pages, a brief, pointed reminder by Jon D. Levenson of the philosopher Leo Strauss's analysis of Spinoza's mode of doubting, and you'll find a discussion of Levenson's own recent scholarship, a splendid example of how new ideas about the far religious past can directly inform contemporary identities of faith. You'll also find, from the pages of a Bulletin almost 40 years old, a few impassioned paragraphs by Richard R. Niebuhr from an essay entitled "Religion Within Limits," including this telling sentence on prophets ancient and modern: "New mindedness is born in the experience of an opposing world."

Second, we can urge our readers to look beyond Dawkins et al and consider a new frontier: nuanced dialogue among, and even research conducted together by, imaginative, collegial scientists and religion scholars—see Philip Clayton's "Required Reading" review, and watch for more in our Spring 2007 issue.

Third, and perhaps most important, we can keep on publishing writing by people whose lives are unequivocal testament to religion as an ever-uncertain but living resource for good in the here and now—not religion as some chilly arena of proofs and counterproofs about the origin of the universe, or as a target for knee-jerk, broad-brush, often-bigoted explanations of contemporary violence. For these people, religious belief is an integral, natural aspect of intelligence, creativity, and right action, linked directly to many of mankind's greatest accomplishments in community structures, health care, architecture, literature, common language, visual art, music, and, yes, philosophy and science.

Witness Jordie Gerson's unflinching account of being a young American rabbinical student in Israel, forced to re-account the price of deeply felt, deeply inherited tradition: "Once you have been here for long enough, you will wake up one day and realize that what you thought your heart was has become something entirely different. At first, you will be angry. Then, you will be sad. Finally you'll resign yourself to it—you will realize you will be remade by this place."

Witness Franz Wright's poems, one of which ends, "At the core the seen and unseen worlds are one." Witness "Notes on Poetry and Religion," by Christian Wiman, who writes: "Indeed, life shatters all abstractions in one way or another, including words like 'faith' or 'belief.' If God is not in the very fabric of existence for you, if you do not find him (or miss him!) in the details of your daily life, then religion is just one more way to commit spiritual suicide."

Above all, witness our cover story, "Why I Love the Bible," by Krister Stendahl, an unabashed confession, by turns erudite and plainspoken, colloquial and orphic, playful, even teasing, always wise. Those Bulletin readers who have known Krister Stendahl—whether as teacher, scholar, preacher, adviser, academic and religious leader, interfaith mediator, or friend, or all of the above—will quickly recognize this combination of attributes with love, and will read with delight. Those of you who are not familiar with him, read carefully. I can only begin to express here how lucky, honored, and blessed we here at the Bulletin are to be able to present these particular words.

In continuing to try to navigate the gulf of understanding between religious believers, with all their vast differences, and agnostic or atheist believers, with all their vast differences, it seems to me important not to set up a kind of cosmic tote board, where good works and evil ones are marked on two sides of a single, dumb divide. In fact, countless lives have been saved or ended in the name of "religion," and countless lives have been saved or obliterated by the means of "science."

Perhaps it's time to pause and watch for those moments that some of us regard as holy and that some others regard as ineffable in a purely rational beauty, and then contemplate our human similarities in that light.

 

Will Joyner is editor of the Bulletin.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

See also: Editor's Note