Monday, December 5, 2011

Common Ground

I’m not an atheist, but I certainly respect their worldview and have learned much from it. I have many atheist friends whom I admire, and I often discover I have more in common with them than many of my theist peers.
It seems that every group, whether it’s atheist, theist or agnostic, has both traditional and progressive adherents …conservative and liberal voices. I consider myself a more progressive theist, but I deeply appreciate the more progressive atheists I have known.

At the risk of over-simplifying and (hopefully not) offending my atheist friends, here are some “beliefs” I think both “liberal” atheists and “liberal” theists might share.

·         A healthy dose of agnosticism is crucial for any dialogue with other worldviews. Even as human knowledge keeps growing exponentially, we know almost nothing in the grand scheme of things. Even our most renowned scientists and philosophers are like microbes trying to understand quantum mechanics.

Not knowing challenges our need to be in control. Being confused and lost is uncomfortable, especially for those of us who are not used to it. While most conservatives adamantly resist it, a willingness to embrace this “dark night of the soul” is necessary for growth.  

Any search for truth that does not grow increasingly more open and humble along the way is destined to fail.

·       We must not hold on too tightly to what has sustained us in the past. How much of what we resist is subconsciously driven by fear of death or fear of irrelevance? As humans we need to survive and we need to matter. The possibility of failing either quest is emotionally painful to say the least.  Avoidance of either fate drives most of our politics, leading to war and injustice.

Unfortunately, these fears also make it difficult for us to navigate the major intellectual paradigm shifts necessary for learning. It’s hard to let go of what gives us individual security and group identity. But let go we must if we are “to explore strange new worlds (and) boldly go where no man has gone before.

Buddhists talk about leaving the ship behind once we arrive at our new shore. Some early explorers actually burned the ships to avoid turning back. Jesus talked about dying to self in order to save oneself and the futility of putting new wine in old wineskins. Would we have ever heard of Einstein had he not dared to question the fundamental concepts of Newtonian physics?

There is a level of belief conservation that warns us against letting go too quickly, but both atheists and theists should wear our beliefs like a loose jacket rather than a life jacket.

·         Institutionalism is both good and bad. Whether it is governmental, religious, educational, scientific or economic, we are both served and threatened by institutions. Formal structures ultimately become outdated at best and corrupted at worst.

For years I have wrestled with institutional religion; yet it was those very institutions that gave me the knowledge to question and discern the good from the bad. Institutions are the vehicles through which we pass knowledge forward. They easily become bloated and self-serving; but if we limit ourselves to sharing oral traditions around the campfire, is that sufficient?

Is the conservative politician’s demand for dangerously low levels of government similar to the conservative atheist’s demand for no religion at all or the conservative theist’s demand for an inerrant Bible? I do imagine John Lennon’s world, but institutions are necessary as we journey that way.

·         Human beings need hope. Someone said we all need “something to do, someone to love and something to hope for.”  A line from the musical South Pacific reads, “You gotta have a dream. If you don’t have a dream, how you gonna make a dream come true?”  Hope is like a dream. Can you imagine where we would be today if not for women and men who had big dreams and high hopes?

Is the hope provided by the healthier religions at least as valuable as the skepticism that keeps them honest?  Is there value in hoping for a transcendent state of being in which all the world’s suffering will not only stop, but also be found meaningful and even necessary? Obviously our selfish egos desire that, but does that alone disprove it?

Is it too childish to at least be open to the possibility that the universe knows and loves us? That we may be here by design rather than mere chance?  Bobby Kennedy said, “There are those who look at things the way they are, and ask why... I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?”

I used a lot of question marks in these last 3 paragraphs, but that’s the essence of hope – valuing question marks as much as periods, especially in regard to possibilities we may be skeptical about.

If the adage is true: we are usually right in what we affirm and wrong in what we deny, the solutions to many of our nation’s problems will require finding common ground amidst our various polemics. I offer the above as a starting point.

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