Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Man at Play

A steady stream of books have been appearing recently suggesting that religious faith, regardless of the truth or error of the specific dogmas upon which it is based, has served a useful purpose in the evolution of mankind. One such offering is The Faith Instinct: How Religion Evolved and Why it Endures by Nicholas Wade (Penguin Press; 310 pp; $25.95.) Another is The Evolution of God by Robert Wright (Little Brown; 567 pp; $25.99).

I doubt if it would be worthwhile to read such books (576 pages?) because life is short, time is limited, and evolution has proven itself capable of taking care of itself. We don’t need to know why religious faith may serve an evolutionary function. In fact, it such a function exists, it can only be maintained by faith and practice—not by the reasons a few intellectuals uncover in support of the phenomenon. Knowing too much about such things might even undermine their effectiveness.

To judge from the reviews I’ve read, Nicholas Wade is suggesting that the adaptive value of religion is two-fold. It provides social cohesion through shared ritual and ecstatic experience, and it also offers a moral code that makes it easier for us to behave civilly and raise our children to do the same. A few problems arise. Ecstatic communion seldom squares with moral injunctions. And in any case, the benefits Wade mentions are unlikely to accrue unless we can find it within ourselves to breathe new life into outworn myths and threadbare liturgical practices—and many modern folk find that very difficult to do.

Robert Wright returns again to the win-win game theory that drove his earlier book, Non-Zero: The Logic of Human Destiny, but his thesis is similar to Wade’s. He argues that religious doctrines has grown more tolerant with the passage of time as an expanding network of political and commercial ties has developed between tribes, sects, and nations. He also considers it a great achievement that religions have been able to expand the “moral imagination” from time to time, and he supplies a wealth of examples to bolster that claim. He seems to be saying that peace and prosperity are good things, and if religion can supply the social lubrication to keep the machinery functioning, that’s all the better.

Yet on the fact of it, Wright’s vision of the impact of religious life doesn’t square completely with the chronicle of brutal wars, inquisitions, expulsions, and enslavements that we associate with religious history. In any case, such materialistic treatments remain a little hollow, if not entirely uninteresting, because they sidestep the compelling question of whether any particular line of religious belief has merit on a personal level. The species will probably survive regardless of what scheme you or I come up with to describe our own state vis-a-vis the wider universe. Yes, tribal dancing is great, and so are incense, yoga, the Latin Mass, Anglican hymns, and the ten commandments. Yet when we quiver in our beds, wondering what it is that will make our own lives more meaningful, discussions of gene pools, adaptation, and social solidarity simply don’t have much purchase. What we really want to know is, Is there a God, and if there is, how can I get to know him better? It seems to me that, matters of evolutionary merit aside, there is also a lot to be said for the Logos contained in myth, scripture, mystical literature and even theological hairsplitting. That’s where the real interest in religion lies.

Hegel once described history as God’s autobiography. Alexander Herzen, the great Russian liberal, described history (in a novel) as the autobiography of a madman. But let us suppose that God is a madman ... at least some of the time. And we are the makers of history, as I hope you are aware. Put it all into the stew pot, along with the beef and the prunes and the lemon peel, and what have you got? Theology!

This may sound like a frivolous remark. I suppose it is. But any serious inquiry, even into the fundamentals of life, could probably be enlivened by a dash of frivolity. And while I have avoided reading about the evolutionary utility of religion and win-win game theory, I have not shrunk from reading entirely. No, I’ve been paging through an old paperback copy of Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (Man at Play) that I came across while doing some year-end weeding of books in the basement.

Huizinga’s thesis is that most of our important social activities once contained an element of play that has largely disappeared from them. I suppose this is just as well with regard to the exercise of justice and the conduct of war, but in the realm of religious theory and philosophical speculation we might still benefit from such an accent. A few nuggets:

Experimental child-psychology has shown that a large part of the questions put by a six-year-old are actually of a cosmogonic nature, as for instance: What makes water run? Where does the wind come from? etc.

As civilization develops, the riddle branches out in two directions: mystic philosophy on the one hand and recreation on the other... [Thus] civilization gradually brings about a certain division between two modes of mental life which we distinguish as play and seriousness respectively, but which originally formed a continuous mental medium wherein that civilization arose.

Myth ... is the appropriate vehicle for primitive man’s ideas about the cosmos. In it, the line between the barely conceivable and the flatly impossible has not yet been drawn with any sharpness.... Living myth knows no line between play and seriousness. Only when myth has become mythology, that is, literature, born along as traditional lore by a culture which has in the meantime more or less outgrown the primitive imagination, only then will the contrast between play and seriousness apply to myth—and to its detriment.

In our own delightfully fragmented age, the sources of potential inspiration are almost limitless. This morning I downloaded a fairly high resolution photograph released just yesterday of parts of space containing nascent galaxies that formed 13.7 billion years ago—which is quite close to the origin of the universe we inhabit. It boggles the mind. But this afternoon I opened a book of poems by the Tang poet Po Chü-I.

Here at incense mountain, already old, I walk out into night
For the first time, meet autumn’s first pellucid round of moon.

Thinking this, this is surely my home-mountain moon now,
I try asking such radiant clarity if it might feel the same way.

A man twelve hundred years ago, alone, talking to the moon. It isn’t a great poem, perhaps, but I hear him and know pretty well what he’s feeling and “where he’s at.” I ask you, now, Which connection is deeper? Which takes us farther? Opens our vision and gladdens our hearts?

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