Wednesday, November 30, 2005

This I Believe?

It's funny that I missed this on NPR. Funny, because I usually have the radio on in the mornings and the evenings, and I usually catch the "This I Believe" segment, and I usually find it to be so much audio treacle that I wish I had missed it. But I wish I'd heard this one, and I'm glad it showed up as the "most e-mailed" piece on their website, or I'd have never gone looking for it and had a chance to read it.

Funny, too, because everything Penn Jillette mentions enjoying here, I enjoy, too, and probably for much the same reasons. And funny, lastly, because it fits in with my thinking, recently, about the caricature we have made of Augustine's insight: "Our hearts are restless until they rest in thee."

Mr. Jillette simply presents us with the same caricature, from the other direction.

Mind, I don't blame that caricature solely on "fundamentalists." The Church has exploited it over time, one way and another. But its abuse today owes more to the Romantics than to tradition. Once we established that humanity was more than profits and factory owners, that laborers were worthy of not only their hire but their dignity, and worthy because they were unique individuals (a very 19th century notion, and very radical for most of that century), it was a short leap to saying that we all longed for what Wordsworth longed for: deep spiritual connection, whether it sprang from "powerful emotions recollected in tranquility" or the memories of childhood (another Wordworthian invention; Freud owes more to Wordsworth than he does to science). And from there, a short step indeed to Augustine's Confessions, which begin in childhood and culminate in his recognition of a "need" for God, what later commentators have come to call the "God-shaped hole" in each of us.

Except, of course, that's not what Augustine said, or meant. It's much closer to Wordsworth, to the poet crying out that he's been "suckled on a creed outworn" or that his intimations of immortality spring from recollections of a happy childhood.

So much of what we think, today, in matters religious, is divorced indeed even from true spirituality. Huston Smith tries to get at this problem in Why Religion Matters, which I'm currently reading (and which prompts this "spontaneous overflow"), but he tries to discuss it in the vocabulary of the modern world, and frankly, as I sit here and try to type it myself, I realize what his central problem is: you cannot discuss "spirit" except in the vocabulary of spirituality. The importance of spirit cannot be defended, or even discussed, in the language of Penn Jillette, because Mr. Jillette will simply say: "I don't believe it, and you cannot prove it." And he is right on both counts; and there the discussion ends, having never really started.

But there is a rich body of spirituality and spiritualism in Christian tradition. It speaks of spirit and vision and "the cloud of unknowing," of mystery and beauty and sex and humanity, in a way not even cognizable to the language of "proof," although proof is not unknown to it, either. Julian of Norwich wrote and re-wrote of her visions during her illness and near-death experience. Teresa of Avila complained to God, like Isaiah, that she didn't always have proof of what had been revealed to her. The greatest mystics never moved "beyond proof," so much as they didn't let it rule them; but they always understood its importance, if only so they could communicate their experiences to us.

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