Friday, March 16, 2007

By their compassion ye shall know them,
or, The unbearable lightness of popcorn

Well, I never thought I'd be in agreement with Sam Harris (The End of Faith) except in a negative sort of way. No, it isn't right to kill in the name of one's God. No, we're not here to wreak vengeance on one another but to care for one another. No, Christianity isn't red, white, and blue, etc., etc.
However, today I read this commentary authored by Harris and thought, "Amen!" ...uh, I mean "Right on!"

Now, I admire people who can expound upon an idea, who can really develop a theme. But I also admire the lapidary turn of phrase. In two sentences, Harris makes mincemeat of what I was taught to call
mysteries of the faith:

The truth is, there is not a person on Earth who has a good reason to believe that Jesus rose from the dead or that Muhammad spoke to the angel Gabriel in a cave. And yet billions of people claim to be certain about such things.
When Harris uses the term "certainty," he means something scientifically verifiable. And when it comes to true spirituality, the scientifically verifiable is often beside the point.

A couple of years ago, I saw a video retelling of the Nativity story, produced and distributed by a Christian denomination --I don't remember which one. In the film every detail mentioned in the gospels of Matthew and Luke was taken as fact and historically reenacted: from the angel appearing to Mary to the slaughter of the Holy Innocents. As each supernatural event unfolded before my eyes, I had a sort of disengaged, "so what?" reaction. And I also remember feeling as though something was missing.

My favorite and oft-blogged-about Christian writer, Marcus Borg, expresses what I had been feeling when he says that we impoverish Scripture by reading it as historic and even scientific record...when we privilege the details of the stories over their richer metaphorical meaning.

Getting back to Harris, after doing the usual lambasting of fanatics of all stripes and then even taking "moderate" and "liberal" adherents to task for "inadvertently shelter[ing]" fanatics, he goes on to say something I can't argue with:
Compassion is deeper than religion. As is ecstasy. It is time that we acknowledge that human beings can be profoundly ethical — and even spiritual — without pretending to know things they do not know.
Harris isn't just making the point that atheists are good people and often even kinder and more caring than the God fearing among us. Nor is he saying only that religion is all a crock. He's saying that true spirituality does not manifest itself in a willingness to believe ten impossible things before breakfast (as Karen Armstrong once put it), but by the compassion for our brothers and sisters and the passionate love of life ignited in our hearts.

Otherwise ...pass the popcorn. It's just another movie.

Popcorn courtesty of
Webweaver's Free Clipart


  1. One of the difficulties with talking about spirituality and religion is that people use each of those terms in such different ways. The term "Religion" for some people, carries too much baggage - they would prefer to abandon it.

    When I first came to buddhism i was attracted by the agnostic teachings of Stephen Batchelor. His little book, "Buddhism without Beliefs" includes the following -

    "Historically, Buddhism has tended to lose its agnostic dimension through becoming institutionalised as a religion (i.e. a revealed belief system valid for all time, controlled by an elite body of priests"). BWB,p16

    I have not read Sam Harris but again i feel, like Dawkins, he defines "faith" narrowly as simply "belief"

    Faith: Trusting Your Own Deepest Experience by Sharon Salzberg has the following passage where she makes distinctions between beliefs and faith.

    "When we hold a belief too tightly, it is often because we are afraid. We become rigid, and chastise others for believing the wrong things without really listening to what they are saying. We become defensive and resist opening our minds to new ideas or perspectives. This doesn’t mean that all beliefs are accurate reflections of the truth, but it does mean that we have to look at what’s motivating our defensiveness. . . .

    “With their assumptions of correctness, beliefs try to make a known out of the unknown. They make presumptions about what is yet to come, how it will be, what it will mean, and how it will affect us. Faith, on the other hand, doesn't carve out reality according to our preconceptions and desires. It doesn't decide how we are going to perceive something but rather is the ability to move forward even without knowing. Faith, in contrast to belief, is not a definition of reality, not a received answer, but an active, open state that makes us willing to explore. While beliefs come to us from outside — from another person or tradition or heritage — faith comes from within, from our active participation in the process of discovery. Writer Alan Watts summed up the difference simply and pointedly as, 'Belief clings, faith lets go.''

  2. "try to make a known out of the unknown." -- yes, I think that's Harris' complaint. And a valid one.

    As I was writing my blog entry, the difference between faith and a belief system did occur to me.

    Of course, on this side of the Atlantic, our highest ranking leaders extol and bestow funding on "faith-based initiatives," many affiliated with fundamentalist churches that see the Rapture on the horizon. This sort of thing just makes the Sam Harris's of the world intolerant of spirituality in general...and understandably so.

  3. Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see. Hebrews 11:1

  4. I'm glad to have stumbled on your blog, and plan to include it on my blogroll. I read the Sam Harris piece last week, and had a slightly different take on it. It seems to me that most believers have an incredibly limited view of "God", and happily use their concept of him as justification for all manner of ungodly things--not the least of them, war. Thanks for your thoughts. I'll be sure to check back in. Cheers, PaL

  5. Hi Peter,

    Yes, I think that's what Harris was saying, and those believers who, as you say,have an incredibly limited view of God give spirituality a bad name. I think one reason they have that limited view is their limited way of interpreting Scripture.

    Besides waging war and other horrors in God's name, there's another aspect to this limited type of spirituality that seems to irk Harris, and rightly so: doing "good works" so that I will rack up brownie points in heaven. In other words, a religious practice that focuses primarily on my salvation, on saving my soul. Harris is right to point out that we should help others simply for the sake of helping others, because they are also human beings who need love and care. Also: doing unto others without requiring that they first sing a hymn or accept Jesus as their personal Savior ... giving freely, with no strings attached.

    Thanks for stopping by. I'm happy to know about your blog.


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