Seeking, not in hope to arrive or find

Moments of my life are given to pondering the state of my soul.  Much of the exercise is outward looking―trying to reckon with those God-shaped holes that seem to lie at the heart of so much modern life, while keeping in mind those God-suggestive patterns so often seen in the material world.

I’ve often thought that it would be wonderful to be a Christian. Especially in the darkening stretch of the year known as Advent, I’m jealous of believing Christians, and I find myself in awe of what the Nativity has wrought. Like many folks, I would hope to know the presence of God. But I often find myself agreeing with the Welsh poet R. S. Thomas

       That God is the great absence

            In our lives, the empty silence

            Within, the place where we go

            Seeking, not in hope to

            Arrive or find

                        (from Via Negativa)

Seeking, of course, has its own rewards.  As does, from time to time, acting as if something―a spiritual claim, a metaphysical proposition―were true.

I’ve spent intermittent time over the past couple of years wrestling with David Bentley Hart’s Atheist Delusions. It’s a noteworthy book with an unfortunate throw-down-the-gauntlet title that doesn’t reflect the book’s aim or reach. While Hart does discuss―and excoriate―Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens and other “new atheists” for their “callow” views and “embarrassing incapacity for philosophical reasoning,” his main brief is a positive one.

His goal is to explain the enormity of the Christian revolution in the age of pagan Rome. His focus is the “transformation of thought, sensibility, culture, morality, and spiritual imagination” that early Christianity (i.e., before Theodosius made it the official state religion of the Roman Empire in 380 A.D.) brought about. Of particular consequence, Hart argues, are the “immense dignity it conferred upon the human person [arguably, he says, for the first time in history],” its “ability to create moral community,” and its “elevation of charity above all other virtues.”

As much as I admire Hart’s historical and philosophical thesis and his spirited defense of the core ideals of Christianity, he is too pessimistic, I think, in the book’s closing pages about the future of a secular society. Although he doesn’t employ the phrase, he doesn’t believe that we can be “good without God”―a notion that, interestingly, is being tested in the “real world.” 

Historical analysis seems to show that, over the millennia (beginning with the rise of the state) and more so in recent decades, violence has been declining globally, and the dignity of the human individual (as seen through the prism of human rights) has been increasing. Steven Pinker (The Better Angels of Our Nature) is a recent explorer of this phenomenon. While I don’t think this positive trend can be causally attributed to the ascendance of secularism, I don’t think that virtuous morality can be attributed solely to theism either.

But I’m beginning to wonder whether making morality the chief means by which to evaluate religious faith―or its lack―is apt.  If instead we were to evaluate Christianity (or Islam, Judaism or Buddhism, or “secular humanism” or atheism) for the degree to which they aid―either as a heuristic or as a guide―the act of seeking . . . well, that would be interesting, wouldn’t it?

But first we’d have to say what we mean by “seeking.” For me, it refers, simply and dauntingly, to the search for meaning:  what being means from the perspective of deep or cosmological time, and how best to make sense of those holes of darkness and longing, as well as those arresting patterns that suggest immanence or transcendence.

In Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the poet John Shade is dumbfounded to discover that a recent spiritual insight has proven illusory:

       Life Everlastingbased on a misprint!
            I mused as I drove homeward:  take the hint,
            And stop investigating my abyss?
            But all at once it dawned on me that this
            Was the real point, the contrapuntal theme;
            Just this:  not text, but texture; not the dream
            But topsy-turvical coincidence,
            Not flimsy nonsense, but a web of sense.

Indeed, the act of seeking is fraught with false dawns and illusions, but texture and pattern do reveal themselves from time to time. And we continue to seek―not necessarily with a view to finding, but always to exercise the imagination in worthwhile investigation.

©  Jamie MacKinnon 2012


Caesar van Everdingen — Diogenes Seeks a True Man (1652, Mauritshuis, The Hague)