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Religion And Rationality
The Supreme Court Everson ruling of 1947 established the principle that America would have no truck with spirits. There was no mention that the previous 150 years of American judicial history passed without any other court finding this well-hidden meaning in the Constitution. But even if we grant the ruling is sincere, an expression of the rational principle behind modern leadership, we would be justified in challenging Everson because of the grotesque record laid down over the past fifty years of spiritless schooling. Dis-spirited schooling has been tested and found fully wanting. I think thats partially because it denies the metaphysical reality recognized by men and women worldwide, today and in every age.
It is ironic from a contrarian viewpoint that the most prestigious scientific position in the world today is surely heading up the human genome project, and that project, as I write, is in the hands of a born-again Christian. Corporations are lined up all the way to China to make fortunes out of genetic manipulation. The director of that project is a man named Dr. Francis S. Collins, who, according to The New York Times, personally recognizes religion as the most important reality in his life. Collins was reared in an agnostic home in western Virginia where he was homeschooled by his outspoken, radical mother who stretched the school law in a number of ways to give him an education. While in medical school, he came to the conclusion that he would become a born-again Christian because the decision was "intellectually inescapable." And he has maintained that faith energetically ever since, a decision that makes his professional colleagues very uncomfortable.
The difficulty with rational thought, however valuable a tool it certainly is, is that it misses the deepest properties of human nature: our feelings of loneliness and incompletion, our sense of sin, our need to love, our longing after immortality. Let me illustrate how rational thinking preempts terrain where it has no business and makes a wretched mess of human affairs. After this, you can tell your grandchildren that you actually heard someone at the onset of the twenty-first century challenging Galileos heliocentric theory.
In materially evidentiary terms, the sun is at the center of the solar system, not the earth, and the solar system itself is lost in the endless immensity of space. I suppose most of you believe that; how could you not? And yet, as far as we scientifically know to date, only planet Earth looks as if it were designed with people in mind. I know that Carl Sagan said well find millions of populated planets eventually, but right now theres only hard evidence of one. As far as we know, you cant go anyplace but earth and stay alive for long. So as of 2000, earth is clearly the whole of the human universe. I want to push this a little farther, however, so stick with me.
Planet Earth is most definitely not the center of your personal life. Its merely a background which floats in and out of conscious thought. The truth is that both psychologically and spiritually you are the center of the solar system and the universe. Dont be modest or try to hide the fact. The minute you deny what I just said, youre in full flight from the responsibility this personal centrality entails: to make things better for the rest of us who are on the periphery of your consciousness.
When you deny your own centrality, you necessarily lose some trust in yourself to move mountains. As your self-trust wanesand school is there to drill you in distrusting yourself (what else do you think it means to wait for teacher to tell you what to do?)you lose some self-respect. Without full self-respect, you can hardly love yourself very much because we cant really love those we dont respect (except, curiously enough, by an act of faith). When you cant trust or even like yourself very much, youre in a much worse predicament than you may realize, because those things are a precondition to sustaining loving relationships with other people and with the world outside.
Think of it this way: you must be convinced of your own worth before you ask for the love of another or else the bargain will be unsound. Youll be trading discounted merchandise unless both of you are similarly disadvantaged and perhaps even then your relationship will disintegrate.
The trouble with Galileos way is that its a partial truth. Its right about the relations of dead matter; its wrong about the geography of the spirit. Schools can only teach Galileos victory over the Church; they cant afford to harbor children who command personal power. So the subtlety of the analysis that you and I just went through about the way religion confers power has to be foregone. Galileos rightness is only a tiny part of a real education; his blindness is much more to the point. The goal of real education is to bring us to a place where we take full responsibility for our own lives. In that quest, Galileo is only one more fact of limited human consequence.
The ancient religious question of free will marks the real difference between schooling and education. Education is conceived in Western history as a road to knowing yourself, and through that knowledge, arriving at a further understanding of community, relationships, jeopardy, living nature, and inanimate matter. But none of those things has any particular meaning until you see what they lead up to, finally being in full command of the spectacular gift of free will: a force completely beyond the power of science to understand.
With the tool of free will, anyone can forge a personal purpose. Free will allows infinite numbers of human stories to be written in which a personal you is the main character. The sciences, on the other hand, hard or soft, assume that purpose and free will are hogwash; given enough data, everything will be seen as explainable, predetermined, and predictable.
Schooling is an instrument to disseminate this bleak and sterile vision of a blind-chance universe. When schooling displaced education in the United States just about a century ago, a deterministic world could be imposed by discipline. We entrap children simply by ignoring the universal human awareness that there is something dreadfully important beyond the rational. We cause children to mistrust themselves so severely they come to depend on cost-benefit analyses for everything. We teach them to scorn faith so comprehensively that buying things and feeling good become the point of their lives.
The Soviet empire did this brilliantly for a little over seventy years. Its surveillance capability was total. It maintained dossiers on each human unit, logged every deviation, and assigned a mathematical value so that citizens could be ranked against each other. Does that sound familiar? It schooled every child in a fashion prescribed by the best psychological experts. It strictly controlled the rewards of work to ensure compliance, and it developed a punishment system unheard of in its comprehensiveness.
The Soviet Union lasted one lifetime. Our softer form of spiritual suffocation has already been in place for two. The neglected genius of the West, neglected by the forced schooling institution as deliberate policy, resides in its historical collection of spiritual doctrines which grant dignity and responsibility to ordinary individuals, not elites.
I have the greatest respect for every other religious tradition in the world, but not one of them has ever done this or attempted to do this. Western religion correctly identified problems no one can escape, problems for which there are no material solutions, problems you cant elude with money, intellect, charm, politics, or powerful connections. It said also that these problems were, paradoxically, fundamental to human happiness. Serious problems necessary to our happiness? Thats some perverse doom, I know youll agree. The question is what to do about it.
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