Sunday, January 14, 2007

Celebrating the ineffable

The scientific atheists (Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, for example) and the scientific theists (Francis Collins and Owen Gingerich, for example) hammer away at each other. We haven't had such a rousing clash of God-debunkers and God-clingers since the days of Thomas Huxley and Richard Owen.

Meanwhile, those of us in another tradition go quietly on our way, wondering what the fuss is all about. We fully accept and luxuriate in the scientific view of the world, and we regard as superfluous any appeal to the supernatural. Yet we are not adverse to being called religious. Our response to the natural world is one of reverence and humility in the face of a mystery that transcends empirical knowing -- now, certainly, and perhaps forever.

"Agnostic" does not do justice to the celebratory aspect of our position. Nor does "pantheist" adequately express our sense of what nature hides. "Creation-based spirituality" has a respectable pedigree, although "creation" hints at an anthropomorphic Creator. "Religious naturalism" gets close to the mark.

Whatever we choose to call it, we are part of a tradition that has found expression within all of the major religions of the world. Within the heritage I know best -- Roman Catholic Christianity -- the tradition has been espoused by voices as various as the 5th-century Celt Pelagius and the 20th-century scientist/mystic Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Invariably, religious naturalists have found themselves outside official favor in a Church overwhelming defined by a dualistic Augustinian neo-Platonism.

If one was looking for a patron saint of religious naturalism within the Christian tradition, one could do no better than read the sermons of the 13th-century Dominican friar, Meister Eckhart. I first read Eckhart as a young Catholic graduate student in physics, in a red-bound paperback that still lurks somewhere in my library. At the time, I had only a vague idea what I was looking for, but I sensed that Eckhart was part of it.

Here is Matthew Fox's account of Eckhart's theology, which I summarize and interpret:

God's word gives rise to the goodness of creation. Although "word" smacks of anthropomorphism, it is a mistake to think of Eckhart's God as a person "out there" or "wholly other." Whatever divinity is, it is inseparable from nature. There is no dualism of body/soul, natural/supernatural, matter/spirit. Eckhart's spirituality can be described as an emphatic acceptance of creation.

But with Eckhart's via positiva there is also a via negativa. God is not this and is not that. God is unknown and unnamable, a mystery sensed intuitively as through a glass darkly. Eckhart "prays God to rid me of God" in order to experience more fully the ineffability and unfathomabilty of creation.

We are not other than God. We are part of the creation, part of the ineffable. Our eternal life, such as it is, consists in being part -- here, now -- of life eternal.

Our spiritual journey is not defined by up/down. We are not asked to despise the body. The goal is not some otherworldly "higher" life. Spiritual growth moves outward to embrace the cosmos and returns to self. Outward and returning, an endless spiral. "If people lived for a thousand years or even longer," says Eckhart, "they might still gain in love."

To the extent that we participate in the divine, we are creators, of art, of course, but also of justice and compassion. Eckhart's Trinity is being, knowing, and doing. We are not hobbled in our search by Original Sin; on the contrary, we are enabled by the blessedness of the creation of which we are a part. Pleasure -- bodily, sensual pleasure -- is part of the spiritual experience. Eckhart warns us (in Fox's words), never to trust a so-called spiritual person for whom laughter does not lie at the center of her spirituality.

Perhaps I have adapted here both Eckhart and Fox to my own agenda, but I trust I have captured something of the essence of Eckhart's way.

In assessing Eckhart's relevance to our own time, we must take into account the conceptual universe in which he lived and the spiritual traditions he was heir to. Still, we catch a glimpse of a tradition of creation spirituality or religious naturalism that stands in opposition to the predominant neo-Platonism that has defined mainstream Christianity at least since the time of Augustine.

Two things in particular distinguish the Eckhartian (Pelagian) tradition from the Augustinian: a unitary rather than dualistic understanding if the world, and an unwillingness to speak of God as a person, or, for that matter, to speak of him (her? it?) at all. Fall/redemption, body/soul, matter/spirit, natural/supernatural: All of these distinctions, in the Eckhartian view, are artificial impediments to a fully joyous spiritual engagement with the creation. And, it must be said, they are at the root of the current tension between science and religion.

The first step in Eckhartian spirituality is to say "yes" to creation, withholding nothing, reserving no part of our heart or mind for a Wholly Other.

Further Reading

Matthew Fox's Breakthrough: Meister Eckhart's Creation Spirituality in New Translation is the work referred to above. I don't see this book on Amazon; presumably it is long out of print. But other of Fox's works on Eckhart are available.

Mary Oliver's Wild Geese is to be found in New and Selected Poems: Volume One, which you should certainly own. If you don't own the volume, the poem can be found all over the web. Please google it.

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