Why the World Needs a Non-Supernatural Approach to Big Questions

TUESDAY, NOVEMBER 4, 2014

I had two recent reminders of how important it is for us and others to develop a decidedly non-supernatural approach to all the big questions of life, and I thought I would share them with the group.

Reminder #1

Over recent weeks, on his popular blog The Daily Dish, the writer Andrew Sullivan has engaged his readers in a conversation about Sam Harris’ new book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion (a book I found well worth reading, by the way).

In an early post, Sullivan, who is Catholic, discusses his and Harris’ different understandings of the tranquil feeling of “self-transcendence” that can arise during meditation or prayer (or even, unbidden, at other times).

In his usual concise manner, Sullivan lays out their opposing views:

“For Sam, this is evidence merely that meditation works, that stilling unending thoughts enables a person to live mindfully rather than to experience life as one goddamned distraction after another. He sees this as proof of the absence of a self and a way to live with clarity and calm as we are beset by feelings and passions, good and bad.

But the Pope suggests another way of seeing this: not as proof of the absence of self so much as the simplicity and calm of being oneself with God. It is a mysterious way of being, this communion with God. And maybe, experientially, it is indistinguishable from Sam’s meditative clarity and occasional epiphanies. But in it, for a Christian like me, the self does not disappear. It is merely overwhelmed by divine love and thereby fully becomes itself. In fact, this is the core mystery of our faith: communion with something greater and other than us, and a communion marked by love. In fact, something even more miraculous than that: a divine love that actually loves you uniquely.”

This irritated me.

It irritated me enough that I tapped out a quick email on my iPhone, while the kids jabbered and giggled around me.

I’m happy to say that Sullivan was good enough to include my contribution in his ongoing discussion with readers. (I am the “Another is more critical” in this post (click here to read).) Here’s what I wrote in full:

I love both you and Sam. I really do. I’m with him on the dangers and damage wrought by religion. With you on most political issues. But on this question from Waking Up, regarding the nature of the so-called “selfless” state of mind human beings sometimes experience during meditation or prayer, I’m afraid you are both wrong.

Andrew, why do you both seek transcendence so badly? For what you feel, what we all feel in these oceanic moments, is neither an experience of being flooded by God’s love (your view) or a glimpse into the underlying “selflessness” of consciousness (Sam’s view).

It is simply one way – one particularly harmonious and happy way! – that our particular species of primate experiences neuronal/electrical activity in our brains. We may speculate that meditation, prayer and the like probably have the effect of quieting activity in the left hemisphere and facilitating a more direct experience of the intuitive, non-verbal right hemisphere … something like that …Whatever it is, it is most certainly NOT anything transcendent, nor showing us a “truth” about the selfless nature of the universe. It is part of what our limited biology, fashioned by millions upon millions of years of adaptation, does.

Why is it so hard for you, and now Sam too, to accept your body and brain for what they are: your ONLY portal to experience, limited as they are, sometimes impulsive and directed, sometimes undifferentiated and peaceful, but always YOURS, beautiful and mortal and precious.

It is always self, and that is okay. Andrew, I say lovingly: go with the love you feel, and you can leave out the “God” part. To Sam I want to say: go with the love you feel, and you can leave out the incoherent idea of some “selflessness” uncannily experienced by the self.

155 years after On the Origin of Species and this is still hard for people to accept. But once you do it is clarifying, and liberating. It’s all natural, all animal – all the way down.

This may sound familiar to members of our group? You know my rants already.

Both Andrew, a Catholic, and Sam, an atheist, seem to be hung up on looking for a way “out” of self. As you know, I think that’s an old habit, inherited from religion.

In The Old New Way, as I see it, we are looking to find a way in — to be fully accepting of our place on this planet and in our bodies (with all of our limited cognitive capacities and conflicting moral drives and rapidly shifting emotional responses).

We want to accept ourselves as we are now. That, I think, is the right place, the only place, from which we can begin asking interesting questions about how to conduct our lives.

Beautiful. Mortal. Precious. Isn’t that enough?

Reminder #2

I had the pleasure of reading this week the biologist E. O. Wilson’s new book, The Meaning of Human Existence.

It was affirming how much Wilson is doing the same thing in this book that we are attempting in The Old New Way.

He begins his argument with an emphasis on primatology and prehistory (closely tracking the discussion we had in our first meeting), and then he takes off from there, trying to articulate a new perspective just as we are.

Here is what Wilson writes in the final chapter:

“The perquisite for attaining the goal is an accurate self-understanding. So, what is the meaning of human existence? I’ve suggested that it is the epic of the species, begun in biological evolution and prehistory, passed into recorded history, and… also what we will choose to become.”

But he knows that this will not be easy:

“The problem holding everything up thus far is that Homo sapiens is an innately dysfunctional species. We are hampered by the Paleolithic Curse: genetic adaptations that worked very well for millions of years of hunter-gatherer existence are increasingly a hindrance to global urban and technoscientific society…”

And he ends with an acknowledgement that any threat to the supernatural claims of the world’s major religions will be perceived as an attack, totally out of bounds, even taken as an expression of a “phobia”…

To this familiar response, he answers with an eloquent line:

“The idea is to place the personal dignity of the believer above the dignity of the belief that demands unquestioning obedience… That would be a true cry of freedom.”

I liked that.

A cry for freedom. Yes! That’s one way to see what we are up to.

Seeking a more accurate self-understanding. That too.

And finally, an acceptance that our lives are… beautiful, mortal, precious.

Can this “mortal” aspect of our lives be part of a net positive, when all is considered together? It is traditionally seen as a curse, a doom, a threat  — hence fables about an after-life. This, I think, is a crucial question that we will consider at our upcoming meeting (on Epicureanism).

Let’s keep at it. We will get somewhere, I am sure of it, one meeting at a time.

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