Sunday, September 7, 2008

The Unsatisfactory Nature of Non-Committal Dullness

I have heard that in the Talmud, Jewish wisdom teaches that people will be held accountable by God for all the times they could have experienced true joy and fulfillment and failed to so. Christian theology has teachings which suggest that sin, or separation from God, is personally destructive because it forces us to puny, less-than-adequate lives in a backward world in which we squander our true potential. Other major sacred traditions refer to something similar - a sense of bondage or limitation from which we seek to be liberated. Buddhism refers to the pathetic false world of suffering as samsara.

I believe that false world can manifest in any number of ways, as many ways as their are sentient beings. What may be a neutral or positive concept to one person could be harmful to someone else, given the right context. For example, some people have bad experiences with a religion and see its symbols as representing a backward, controlling, overly judgmental, and false set of beliefs. Someone else may see that same religion and its symbols as inspiring, comforting, or challenging. I have expressed my concerns before about how a reaction against anything traditional as old and irrelevant while seeing anything associated with the modern as reliable, in particular when it comes to attempts to parse and reinterpret sacred traditions such as Buddhism...

Which takes us back to so-called Western Buddhism and what it should or should not be. And the aforementioned desire I suspect to be at work in some circles to "cleanse" Buddhism of any non-rational elements, with the caveat that rational often means what we think makes sense, hence what fits our current "paradigm", which for a number of potential or actual Western Buddhists is, again, the so-called empirically based rationalism which is often associated with the methodology of science but which is often co-opted into what is sometimes termed ontological naturalism, which means anything that smacks of supernaturalism is out...

[I]f we are saying that Buddhism is just the science of suffering, and only based on observation, what does that mean? Is it just a window dressing for our established preconception of reality? Oh, well, I embrace only empirical rationalism, and so my definition of "observation" technically is limited to that perspective? Or, when we talk about Buddhism being rooted in observation, is it observation freed from believing "this" or generally accepting "that" - a kind of wide open embrace of existence that does not rely on how we define this or whether we divide the universe like that?

In the end, are we just making a new, secularized, empirically-safe finger to latch onto? Does the nature of the Dharma change whether we call Shunyata (emptiness) the Tao or even God? Or if we fail to name it? Does it change if we believe in magic? If we do not? If we pray or do not? For who or what do we need to reinvent or reconstitute Buddhism "in the West"?

"I Sometimes Wonder"

I believe that if we take terms like religion, spirituality, faith, and the like strictly in terms of their most superficial usage in the "fundamentalist Abrahamic religionist"/"cynical anti-theist" debate, we might as well chuck out Buddhism right now along with every other religion, because we would be missing something like 60-80% of what is being buried under such simplistic definitions. And in that missing chunk are the core spiritual elements that are shared by the various sacred traditions of the world. What would be left would be the trappings, the decor, of the rich history and collected insights of contemplative traditions and the kind of compassionate life they inspire and describe, a hollow shell. If we are the kind of humanist who runs away from such "dirty" words, I don't think what we would practice as "Buddhists" would be permitted to take us beyond our own predetermined comfort zones where we feel in control/think we fully grasp the sum of our experiences in light of our concepts of reason and intellectual comprehension.

On the other hand, if we can get past the knee-jerk reaction to religion and spirituality, and give such sacred traditions an honest and open inquiry, then we may see that while a move to secular humanism might help us shed our previous assumptions about concepts such as God or faith, it can also serve as a clean slate/firm grounding upon which to take our first shaky steps back into pondering the great questions of our existence. If we have the courage and interest in leaving that seemingly secure shelter...and getting back into a messy world where we appreciate that all belief systems, even secularism, involve foundational assumptions which must simply be accepted, where intuition and emotion are not denied in our decision-making process, and where there are possibilities beyond the defined borders of rational/empirical understanding...

"Humanist Buddhists? Buddhist Humanists?"

For me, part of my limitation was a world without human diversity framed in immature religious imagery which favored the kind of ignorance that some atheists presume is standard fare for all sacred traditions. Yet even that form of spirituality had some benefits, which paled next to the complaints. So initially my tour through deism, agnosticism, and atheism had a liberating quality as I learned about deep time and human biological and cultural diversity. But that also led to another limitation, for in some circles while scientism (believing only in that which is verified by science) was publicly discounted, it seemed to be a fair approximation of what was privately presumed. Yes, there is a world of infinite awe and possibility, except that the possibility was generally confined to the likely, and the likely to whatever matched up with the bare bones framework of atheistic materialism. It was chic to be brave in the face of nihilism, to impose meaning on a meaningless universe, to presume that reality is cold and harsh and not wear an overcoat of simplistic falsehoods about gods and an afterlife. Not that these positions, ironically, are scientific in nature. From a supposed infinite array of possibilities some tend to see only dichotomies.

I have pursued the nuances left untouched or discounted by the more partisan members of the atheist vs. theist argument, somewhere along the line preferring to be a post-theist, which I defined as someone who no longer sees the validity in arguing either for atheism or theism. In that field of nuance I found a huge section of human identity and history and common elements which ranged from the oldest surviving religions to modern and post-modern attempts to appreciate the sacred. And I have blogged about these things, using religious language and God-talk from a variety of religions when necessary. So in a sense, one might say that I have continued to grow. I have increasingly come to recognize how amazingly limited our ability to detect, perceive, and understand the world that goes on around us really is. I have even defended the idea (off this site) that what we conceive of us as the "material" universe may in fact only be a subset of a larger set of phenomena of which we are mostly unaware and unable to grasp. Who knows what affects this larger aspect of existence has on us, or how it might be perceived in part by those sensitive to it. It certainly helps to maintain what Einstein referred to as a holy curiosity.

And yet, I am still stuck in a number of ways in several aspects of my life. Perpetually stuck. Part of being an "agnostic atheist" is that you get to be non-committal. That is, you are technically open to any possibility regarding religion and God and such matters but you are in a more practical and realistic sense closed to them. That is, you are open to the idea or possibility of changing your mind, which of course is logical and fair, but not so much really open to believing in more than the material world. There are other ways of being non-committal. Many. From something as simple as registering as a non-affiliated Independent at the local election office to being a generalist in a field of study. This can become a habit or a way of life, producing a sort of dullness which pervades your life. Intellectually you are open to change, open to new experiences, open to the possibilities! But the lived experience, founded on what is in your heart, may be something different.

In No One Sees God by Michael Novak, the author suggests something I have heard before, which is the difference between believers and atheists may be their attitude toward the unknown. I don't like blanket generalizations (neither does Novak), but it seems this fault line might make sense. I have known some rare atheists who do sense a greater force at work in producing and sustaining the universe, and some theists who have such a limited and unimpressed appreciation of the world that it seems like they are only believers because it never occurred to them they might not really believe. And among the Buddhists of course are those who think Buddhism is just a health lifestyle and ethical philosophy and there are those who sense a wonderful and familiar presence in all of existence. So your head may be going one way while your heart is stuck somewhere else, which brings up the contradictory dilemma of the person who wants to appreciate a greater depth to existence but just isn't "feeling" it.

Perhaps the persistently non-committal person is just so. Bound by anxiety, perhaps, or insecurity. Maybe flooded with doubt. Able to dimly perceive the greater choices of life but not to partake in them. Perhaps thinking they are safe in their excessive restraint, not only from themselves but from the consequences of a wrong choice, they are instead among the damned. They are living less-than-adequate lives rotten with spoiled potential, producing the bittersweet fragrance of regret which they must be careful to avoid by distraction with the petty concerns of their puny lives. They mistake their pain and torment for the natural way of the world, uncomplicated by greater concerns and unadorned by true sorrow and true joy. So it may be that I am among this crowd. While I admire those who are genuinely open to a more personal, amazing, and compelling view of the universe that is typified by the more "spiritual and religious" types, who regard the unknown as a sacred mystery, and while intellectually I am a firm post-theist, my heart seems to be stuck in the shallowness of the non-committal agnostic atheist. Not because of the appeal of atheism, but because of the default choicelessness of agnosticism. So along with other folk who share this lack of conviction, deep down if you look long and hard enough you simply find an unsatisfactory dullness.

The road may sometimes be hard my friends, but at least it takes you somewhere. Or at least that's what some travelers have told me as I watched them passing by. If you get to Heaven or Paradise or Nirvana, send me a postcard.


  1. " someone who no longer sees the validity in arguing either for atheism or theism." That pretty much sums me up, though I enjoy reading and discussing arguments form both sides.

    Great post! :-)

  2. Yeah, theists think I am an atheist, atheists assume I am a theist, and I just keep pluggin' along.

    Good to see you again. Thanks for the compliment.

  3. I like when people can't be easily pigeonholed. :-)

    I don't know if you saw, but I quoted you in a recent blog entry:

  4. Cool - thanks. You would like my lecture on that topic with all of the cross-cultural examples. A lot of people talk about free thinkin' but display no evidence thereof. :^)


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