I was reading God Revised: How Religion Must Evolve in a Scientific Age, by Galen Guengerich for my book club this month. (Correction: one of my book clubs.). This is not one of those books I got for free for the purpose of reviewing, I just had such a love-hate relationship with it I wanted to write about it anyway.
When I say love-hate, I mean 85% love, 10% genuine critique, 5% persistent personal annoyance. Guengerich’s main thesis is that the problem of modern spirituality is that human beings need religion, and yet can no longer believe in silly supernatural things because of scientific progress. Guengerich’s solution to this is to re-define God, religion, and ethics so that we can all have religion (not mere spirituality, this is important to him) without needing to believe in anything that can’t be explained (ultimately) by science.
He actually does a really solid job. Guengerich argues consistently that religion is necessary, not “so we can find salvation for the next life, but rather so we can find meaning and purpose in this one.” He is very clear that mere personal spirituality is not so ultimately satisfying, for in pasting together a hodge-podge of different spiritual practices, we end up being alone in our spirituality rather than connected, because we cannot share the whole experience with another, and because there is no central, unifying principle(s) to hold it all together. As he makes the point, just because you walk around Carnegie Hall, buy a violin bow, hum some Beethoven to yourself, and visit the shop where the conductor bought his baton doesn’t mean your experience adds up to the Ninth Symphony. As you cannot have a symphony alone, neither can you have religion alone. You can have bits and pieces and aspects, but you can’t have the full experience. And for Guengerich, connection – to one another, to our pasts, to our possibilities, and to the wider world around us – is a prime value. He makes the point several times that we are all, ultimately, utterly dependent on the universe, connected intimately with everything and everyone else, past and future. Religion, he presses, is about helping us realize that reality, because it is in these connections that we find our purpose and our hope. This is where most of my 85% love is centered – I loved everything he said about religion and the ethic of gratitude that he outlines, and I think his points about dependence are a welcome and important counterpoint to the excesses of American individualism so prevalent today. I also thought his definition of a non-supernatural God was kinda brilliant. I was skeptical at first (“What is he talking about? Isn’t God, by definition, supernatural?”), but pleasantly surprised that he pulled it off.
About that last point – Guengerich is clear that it’s not necessary to believe in the supernatural, or swear allegiance to any fairy tale rule book, in order to have this transcendent experience. In fact, he’s quite persistent in claiming that any reliance on or belief in the supernatural is behind us as a species and that we would all be better off if we moved on. This is where he gets personally annoying for me, as someone who feels very strongly in a supernatural God, Who has an incredible amount in common with Guengerich’s conception of God, except for the supernatural part. I mean really, if we agree on 90% of everything else, can’t you just let me have God supernaturally? Must you insist that I am delusional or childish or backwards for finding the Bible to be rich reading, or for being able to see it as a book that is both divinely inspired and culturally bound in important ways? He makes a lot of passing comments about how belief in both science and the supernatural necessarily leads to a schizophrenic, divided world view, which may be true for many people, but all the scripture interpretations and doctrines he used to demonstrate this were ones I don’t subscribe to. I was fine with his problems with fundamentalism, because they’re also my problems with fundamentalism, I was just wishing for a little more charity towards other traditions in Christianity (and progressive Islam, Reform Judaism, etc.). He spent a lot of time pointing out the worst in historical and modern American Christianity (and there’s a lot of it, I’ll freely admit), and then swiping all the rest of it away as if reformers of the tradition don’t exist or don’t matter, even though we’re fighting for most of the same things he’s fighting for. [And I always find the secular claim that religion is the cause of all evil in the world to be tiresome – claiming that the crusades and the inquisition are the result of Christianity is like claiming that Stalin’s and Mao’s regimes were the result of atheism. Humans are persistently messed up, routinely seek power out of fear, and will hijack whatever institution and rhetoric wields the most influence at the time. But I digress.]
Anyway. I was clearly just not the target audience. Staunch religious in various traditions will be annoyed by Guengerich’s dismissal of all things supernatural, as I suspect staunch atheists will be annoyed that he’s trying to defend religion at all (one of my super-smart book club friends pointed out that a heavier reliance on neuroscience than philosophy would have added more empirical weight to his claim that humans need religion). It seems to me Guengerich is addressing mostly “nones,” the spiritual-but-not-religious, and what a good friend once termed “non-practicing atheists.” Being inclusive towards someone like me might have been too much of a stretch for his audience. He’s creating a path to religion for people who can’t reconcile the supernatural with the scientific, and/or have been burned by traditional religion, but who still crave a deep, richly textured, transcendent experience. I think this is a really valuable service and even an important book for that reason.
At book club, one of my really intelligent and well-read, religious-studies major friends said that she didn’t find anything in it that hadn’t in some way been said before, and I’m sure that’s largely true (gratitude is pretty universal, after all, although I thought a central “ethic of gratitude” was kind of novel), but in the swirling vortex of modern spirituality, I think his is an important voice, and I think this is an important iteration of these ideas. It reminds me of the poem The Second Coming by Yeats:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
This is what spirituality feels like to a lot of people today – things are falling apart, and there’s no center to hold onto – you have to cling to the edges of oppressive fundamentalism or harsh secularism. Guengerich is trying to find and articulate a center that will hold. And for those who are seeking just that, I hope they find the hope and satisfaction that Guengerich is trying to give them.
PS – I’d be really interested in hearing the opinions of any of my atheist friends, if you’ve read the book. I’m curious to know how it reads from the other side.