How I Got Religion

Not, “how I became religious,” but “how I came to understand religion.”

It is extremely difficult for most moderns to negotiate the passage to the fundamentally spiritual perspective that all humans shared before the Enlightenment. At least, I found it so, for the longest time. Despite a number of spiritual experiences that I could nowise gainsay, I could make no philosophical sense of spiritual realities using the intellectual tool kit my Modern education had provided me. I got a lot of training in how to think about the physical, but I didn’t know how to think about the spiritual (or, for that matter, anything not physical). That made it somewhat incredible, and indeed somewhat scandalous. And this made it quite difficult to be wholeheartedly religious – to worship or say the Credo without invoking a string of philosophical hedges and equivocations that rather emptied the whole procedure of its numinous, compelling quality, and thus of its point.

Having no way to comprehend spiritual realities, I could not even understand quite exactly what the articles of the Credo properly mean, or what I was meant to be doing in worship. I now realize that I often encounter that same incapacity in atheist interlocutors. They don’t seem to have a way of understanding what it is that theists are talking about. So their arguments often miss the point entirely, and when theists point this out to them they simply can’t see that they are fundamentally misunderstanding the terms of the dialogue.

Modernity’s inadequacy to spiritual realities is echoed in its incomprehension of consciousness, agency, meaning, value, morality, and in the limit truth, beauty, and virtue – or their antipodes. Under its own terms, Modernism cannot account for these things, and must if it is to discuss them at all resort to unprincipled exceptions. This renders it incapable of coherent treatment of any of the basic aspects of life as it is actually lived and experienced. It is, in a word, unable to understand minds, or therefore persons, or a fortiori their lives.

Modernity does however comprehend bodies, better by an order of magnitude than any previous age. So naturally, and like any other successful weltanschauung, it wants to interpret everything under its own terms. It wants to make bodies basic, and reduce all experience to motions of bodies.

Modernism takes bodies to be utterly dead. It wants to say that everything is motions of those dead objects. But as is obvious to the most cursory consideration, the life of the mind is not a congeries of dead things, or of their lifeless collisions. It is an active, lively process. It is a series of happenings, a temporal assemblage of occasions, each of which – whether conscious or not – is in some degree alive to its past and intends some future.

[Of such lively intensions implemented in actual transactions among entities is the causal nexus that connects and relates disparate events constituted as a coherent integral world system.]

It is furthermore transparently obvious that no configuration of dead things can be alive. Only what is alive can be alive.

As incoherent, then, the Modern project of reducing life to motions of dead bodies is, not just doomed to failure, not just impossible (as a complete consistent logical calculus, while conceivable, is not possible), but strictly meaningless, ergo unthinkable: not even wrong.

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God is the Window

Eternity is prior to all events. Events cook out of eternity. Their causal relations to each other cook out of their accidental forms, which are found originally in God. So Leibniz was right: the monads – the quanta of action which constitute the events of creaturely lives – don’t define themselves ab initio in terms of their own immediate relations to each other, but rather in terms of their relations to each other as mediated by the logically prior Divine omniscience of all compossibilities. They do see each other – they are not windowless – but only through God. God is their window.[1]

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Kwagunt: Creek and Canyon

When I was 18 I was fascinated with American Pragmatism and its theory of truth. I devoured the works of William James and Charles Peirce, the founders of that epistemological school (most of them, anyway; when it comes to scholarship, I’m a hopeless dilettante). They are two of the most amiable minds I have ever encountered. They argued that we come to believe that propositions are true, not so much because they really are, as because they are expedient for us to believe. So, what we call truth is what it is expedient for us to believe – whether or not what we believe really is true.

This notion raised a firestorm when it was proposed in the late 19th century. James and Peirce both expressed themselves strongly, so it was not perhaps unnatural that they were widely understood to mean that truth is nothing but what it is expedient for us to believe. They did not; they meant only that we are so made as to feel that a proposition is true, or likely to be true, or “close enough for government work,” when it works out well in practice – in mundane life, or in scientific experiment, or when tested by logic, or when fitted to our other well-tested beliefs. So, Pragmatism is not so much an epistemological theory, properly speaking, as it is psychological. This has not stopped later generations of Pragmatists from insisting that there is no final Truth, no terminus ad quem of intellectual inquiry, but rather only one waypoint after another in an endless process of searching that is designed only to get us through life, from one approximation of a good understanding to the next.

I was thinking about all this one day as I hiked along the slick muddy bed of Kwagunt Creek, which flows down a canyon to meet the Colorado River in the Grand Canyon, where I was then sojourning as a whitewater boatman. Pragmatism’s insights into our intellectual operations – or mine, anyway – seemed undeniably accurate. How then could I ever know that I had understood a real truth? I mean, there would be nothing to prevent me from such a veridical discovery, but absent any objective criterion of truth – such as, you know, whether or not a notion was true *in fact* – nothing to show me that I had ever achieved it, either.

It was then that I slipped in the mud, very nearly falling on a small boulder and hurting myself quite badly. I thought first, chuckling, about Dr. Johnson’s retort to Bishop Berkeley’s Idealism, which was to kick a stone and demand whether the pain that resulted were merely ideal. I thought then about pain, and what it tells us about our relation to the world. It occurred to me suddenly that pain would be totally useless, indeed worse than useless, unless it conveyed veracious information. There would be no reason for an animal to be equipped with pain, and good reason for it to be insensible thereto, unless the pain conveyed knowledge. Indeed, if an animal’s perceptions of any sort were not at least mostly veridical, its survival prospects would be terrible. So, there can be no way that animals – including man – that have survived millions of years of testing by nature can be poorly set up to apprehend those aspects of the environment that are really important to their lives, to their prosperity, survival, and reproduction. On the contrary.

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