Tuesday, 23 January 2018

"I still haven't found what I'm looking for," not quite...

I want to feel in touch with, part of, something so vast we might as well call it omnipotent, all powerful. It seems likely to me that all of us need this or something like it, but I don't want this is to read like a sermon or a bossy directive so I will simply write in terms of what I need.

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;”

I take the poet to be saying that we don’t much feel part of Nature, in the sense that it is ours and we are its.

There are powerful polarising forces in our culture, and I'm not just talking about politics. For example, we tend to feels that someone who is troubled, as Wordsworth was, by the materialistic excesses of our choice-driven culture necessarily wants to turn away from the material world, maybe to live on top of a mountain in China. 

Well that's not me; our technological culture is rich in benefits for nearly all of us - let's take that as read. But I do believe too often we lay waste our powers with endless fussing about insignificant differences between one consumer good or one experience, and another. We haven't got much of a frame against which to set the glittering lure of everything the marketing industry has created to draw us towards products and experiences. 

It’s too easy to think that expressing our individual selves through choice and consumption is all we need to do for a happy life. In any case, as long as 1% of the world’s population owns - what is it Oxfam said? 80%? - of the world’s wealth, and we know that fact, how can pure materialism feel like a satisfying way to live? (We really do need to do something about that 1%, but that’s not my brief here.)

You might justifiably object that there are still very many people in the West who follow a religious teaching, and those teachings are frequently critical of materialism as an end in itself. So there are and so they do. 

Some of those teachings seem to me socially benevolent and supportive of individual calm and well-being. Others, by their self-righteous exclusion of everything they disagree with, are the reverse of calm and benevolent, as far as most of us are concerned. 

And they are occasionally socially toxic and physically dangerous; but let's not get into the wearisome argument between pro and anti-Dawkins - are religious people or atheists more likely to be wicked? Crusaders and jihadists vs Mao and Stalin. Since almost all of us are neither, let’s take something else as read: it’s what individuals do with their beliefs that ultimately matters, much more than the beliefs themselves.

It would be so much simpler to be a devout Christian or a gentle Muslim, but that may not really do for those of us who can't accept the demands of faith in supernatural beings. 

Although I think we do in the west exaggerate the importance of belief over practice, and although I can see the potentially  supportive nature of regular religious observance, this whole area of life is too important to me for any faking or wishful thinking, and that’s what I’d be doing if I started saying a "Hail Mary, Full of Grace." We can't unknow what we think we know - unless it is shaken to bits by something else.

Gradually, bit by bit, that shaking has been an uncomfortable but rewarding part of my living. It is leading me away from either total belief in a major religion, or a purely rationalist, materialist understanding of our world.

One thing remains firm and clear, for me at least: omnipotence cannot be anthropomorphic. God cannot have a human face or any human attributes. So I need to keep looking.

Someone once wrote that people who are happy with a religious faith and regular observance can expect a calmer and happier time of it than those who are working things out for themselves in what is called "A spiritual path.” (Sorry about that clumping great modern cliche!) The path-seekers will have a lonely, restless time of it.

So be it.

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