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Friday, August 20, 2010

What we worship

The ocean womb of life and source
of its energy together.
(cc) Ingo (meironke),
Well known film critic Roger Ebert wrote in his online journal for the Chicago Sun-Times this month about Christopher Hitchens - the 'militant atheist' known for such books as God is Not Great and others. Hitchens has contracted a very serious form of cancer, like Roger Ebert, who lost his ability to speak from the disease. You can read Ebert's eloquent thoughts on Hitchens and his recent CNN interview by clicking this link. However, my comments are about one particular part of Ebert's excellent post. As he wrote:

"I was asked at lunch today who or what I worshiped. The question was asked sincerely, and in the same spirit I responded that I worshiped whatever there might be outside knowledge. I worship the void. The mystery. And the ability of our human minds to perceive an unanswerable mystery. To reduce such a thing to simplistic names is an insult to it, and to our intelligence."

As I read that paragraph, I was first struck by the personal way Ebert opened up to us. I soon realized as I completed it, that it's probably the coolest paragraph I've read this week. Upon reflection, although I still believe that, I now have mixed feelings about it's content.

On the one hand, I can relate to Ebert's awe and wonder at the great mystery of existence. I think that fascinating puzzle ads to life; so much so, that to ever have such questions answered might be less satisfying a position than the one of pursuing them. But the question of worshiping the mystery sticks in my craw, and I think I've realized the reason.

It is not, as some might expect of a nontheist, because of the concept of worship. I'm prepared to accept a certain kind of worship - as in, having a sacred respect for something. But the problem with worshiping "the void", as Ebert puts it, is that it leaves all that wondrous stuff we can see, and that we do know in the natural universe, discarded. The stuff of all those inspiring Einstein posters, and Carl Sagan Nova monologues, and Neil deGrasse Tyson speeches are not about the gaps, so much as they are about our visible, approachable, universe.

Further, the volumes of Buddhist, Taoist, and Confucian wisdom (some immaterial caveats, granted) are largely about how nature, people, minds, and experience work and what kinds of things lead to the good life. Heraclitus and countless other ancient philosophers also brought us some of the most useful and inspiring lessons.

At some point in our past there was a great schism, whereby we divided up things into the natural and an alleged 'supernatural' and then we regarded everything of value and meaning as being of the latter. The reason worshiping the void, the unknowable, doesn't quite work for me, is that it is ultimately just a modern version of tossing everything of value into the unreachable darkness. Even with the supernatural assertion removed, It is still a surrender - a shrugging of the shoulders - which serves only to relieve us of the effort of connecting with what we worship. I, then, am a naturalist version somewhat akin to those Christians who tell people that God is not in some far off unreachable realm, but He is right here with us, in us, and part of all creation. They realize that you can tell a lot about a people by what they worship, and it is important that what we adore be something with which we can connect.

Ultimately, I can't escape the suspicion that Ebert's view on this, is of the same philosophic family, as a view that doesn't see what it needs in the knowable natural realm, and is inspired to relegate it to the unknowable. Instead, I would offer this...

If we are to 'worship' (take or leave that word per se), then let us find sacred truth and its pursuit, let us praise reason - not just the human capacity for reason, but the underlying rational order by which the universe operates and makes possible all things. Let us be in awe of the self-emergent complexity and the ever-changing maelstrom of cause and effect that arises from that natural law. Let us then value all life which is borne of that complexity. Let us appreciate our place among that life. Let us love one another, and let us find meaning in sharing with one another in the time we have borrowed from the universe. And, when it comes time to repay that debt, let us play our part gracefully in harmony with the way of the universe. And along the way, let us indeed take note of all we don't know, and may never know, and let that humble but inspire us.

That's a lot more than void, and worth some reverence I think.

Having said that, Roger Ebert's post was exceptional and I recommend it; and I wish both men all the best.

Thanks to D. J. Grothe for making me aware of Ebert's article.

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