Sunday, March 27, 2005

In praise of the Enlightenment

In an essay "Why Religion," the poet Czeslaw Milosz tells us that he lived at a time when human imagination was dramatically changing. Heaven and Hell disappeared, he says, belief in an afterlife was weakened, and the borderline between humans and animals was blurred by the theory of evolution. "The notion of absolute truth lost its supreme position," and "history directed by Providence started to look like a battle between blind forces."

The age of homelessness has dawned, Milosz laments.

He is wrong on several counts.

First, I see no evidence that the changes he lists are in the ascendancy. The world is awash in religious fundamentalism. Even in America the great majority of people believe that history is ruled by Providence, and only a minority believe humans are related to other animals by common descent.

If polls are to be believed, the notion of absolute truth is alive and well.

The age of homelessness? Hardly. As I see it, jingoism, chauvinism, religious triumphalism, and self-absorption are the bane of our times, as they have been the bane of all previous ages. Oh, if only we had a rather more inclusive understanding of home.

Milosz seriously overestimates the erosion of religion.

It is certainly true that those of us who are guided in our beliefs by the ideals of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment see no evidence of an afterlife or a world ruled by Providence. And, yes, we have jettisoned the notion of absolute truth in favor of partial, tentative, evolving public knowledge.

But we are very much a minority in a world that by and large still seeks the assurance of absolute truth in scriptures, religious traditions, popes, ayatollahs, New Age gurus, the stars.

I have just finished reading poet Christopher Merrill's new book Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, an account of his pilgrimages to the Mount Athos peninsula of Greece, a place famed for its many Orthodox Christian monasteries. Afflicted by a sense of unease and homelessness, Merrill sought something firm, unchanging, true. By his account, he found it. In the ancient and rigid monastic traditions of Mount Athos he caught a glimpse of the Eternal.

"This is why we believe the slightest deviation from tradition can wreak havoc," a monk tells Merrill. "You never know what the consequences of any change will be."

Much of what Merrill found on Athos is undeniably beautiful -- the iconic art, the liturgies, the physical geography -- but I came away from his book with an impression of men (women are banned from the peninsula) who are superstitious, intolerant, misogynistic, and anti-Semitic. They can't even get along among themselves.

Still, Merrill returned from Athos prepared to make Kierkegaard's leap of faith: "To obey God's will, even against the evidence of our senses and reason, as Abraham was ready to sacrifice Isaac, his only son, because God told him to."

And this, counts Merrill, is finding his way home.

Well, I dissent. If killing one's child because of religious delusion is "home," then I choose homelessness. If absolute truth means intolerance and exclusivity to those who hold different notions of absolute truth, then I'll take the tentative but manifestly reliable truths of science. I'll take the evidence of "our senses and reason."

And, if truth be known, I don't feel at all homeless. The Earth is my home, a tiny, beautiful dot in a universe vast beyond my knowing. I am bound to every other creature on the planet by common descent. Every other human is part of my family, and I would not sacrifice a single one one of them because of a voice in my head. What I share with my fellow humans -- genetically, chemically, biologically -- is far greater than the (often beautiful) cultural traditions that divide us.

For those of us who live by the values of the Scientific Revolution and Enlightenment, there is no inevitability to history, at least not in its particulars. But history is not therefore "a battle of blind forces," as Milosz suggests, because we are not blind. We can embrace the Enlightenment ideal of the "brotherhood of man." We can be compassionate, inclusive, tolerant. We can be confident in our own ability to make sense of the world. We can await personal oblivion in the hope that we have left the planet a better place than we found it.

It is when we surrender out best instincts to notions of Heaven, Hell, providential favor, and absolute truth that all hell breaks loose.

Further Reading

Christopher Merrill's Things of the Hidden God: Journey to the Holy Mountain, although somewhat repetitive, is an eclectic and always fascinating history of the past and present practice of monasticism on Mount Athos, and a moving account of one man's journey to faith, hope and love. Merrill quotes Milosz.

Czeslaw Milosz's essay "Why Religion?" is included in To Begin Where I Am: Selected Essays Milosz died last year in Poland at age 93.

Soren Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling, with its multiple accounts of the story of Abraham and Isaac, was an influential book of my youth.

Student Activities

  1. There can be not better proof that Milosz was wrong about the prevailing ideologies of our time than the fact that most students in any class will probably disagree with this essay. Or at least, that's my guess. If so, all the more reason to read and discuss a dissenting view, as I read and discuss Milosz and Merrill.
  2. Write your own short version of the story of Abraham and Isaac.

Discuss this essay and more over on the Science Musings Blog.