WHEN MORE IS MORE
“I want to overhear passionate arguments about what we are and what we are doing and what we ought to do. I want to feel that art is an utterance made in good faith by one human being to another. I want to believe there are geniuses scheming to astonish the rest of us, just for the pleasure of it. I miss civilization, and I want it back.” — Marilynne Robinson, “The Death of Adam: Essays on Modern Thought”
I dug out my one and only Marcus Borg book today, which I got off the PD book cart for $2. It’s called “The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith — How We can be Passionate Believers Today.” I had heard of Borg and wondered what he had to say for himself. So I bought a “title” I wouldn’t normally touch.
Before I get to my main point, let me share the passage I mentioned the other night about the variety of Christian belief:
“We can perceive Christian diversity in the various cultural forms that Christianity has taken. To illustrate without seeking to be comprehensive: there is a second-century Syrian way of being Christian, an eighth-century Irish way, a twelfth-century Eastern Orthodox way, a fifteenth-century Chinese way, and a nineteenth-century Scandinavian Lutheran peasant way.
“There is theological diversity as well. Without explaining the differences, there were, from the early days of Christianity, Arian and Athanasian Christians, Monophysite and non-Monophysite Christians, predestination and non-predestination Christians, infant-baptisim and adult-baptisim Christians. Being Christian therefore can’t be about getting our beliefs ‘right,’ even though we have often acted that way.
“The point is, there is no single right way of understanding Christianity and no single right way of being a Christian.”
So that’s interesting. It reveals an open-mindedness I did not expect to find. So the title is a bit misleading. I’d like to think he was trying to suck in pious people and enlighten them with his slightly more open-minded views. So again we’re back to someone’s enlightenment project.
“MORE” and THE X FACTOR
Now let me introduce Borg's idea of “more.” In a section on worldviews, Borg says that while there are as many worldviews as there are cultures and subcultures, there are two primary ones: religious worldviews and nonreligious worldviews.
He said the religious worldview hinges on the belief that, metaphysically speaking, there’s something more than this life alone, while the nonreligious view sees this world as all there is. But this fails to recognize a third alternative: that there’s already a “more” that does not depend on metaphysics or theology for its existence; indeed, it’s this “more” that gives theology its existence, purpose and meaning.
Let me elaborate by turning to a book called, “The Van Gogh Blues: The Creative Person’s Path Through Depression,” by Eric Maisel. This shorthand description speaks volumes about the “more.” Maisel says: “We don't know the secret of our own genetics, how easy or hard it is for us to change our basic nature, or how our beliefs are woven together. This X factor produces, if not utter mystery, enough mystery that our understanding of who we are is obscured and limited.” And the X factor doesn't simply obscure our knowledge of ourselves, it reaches out in many directions.
This leads to an observation from Emerson: “The true path to spiritual reality lay in and through the structure of the human mind. The character of each man shall form his Imagination. The Beings of the Imagination shall become objects of unshaken faith, that is, to his mind, Realities.”
If we could make Emerson and Maisel speak in one voice for a moment: “Recognizing the X factor means recognizing the limits of our understanding; to deny the X factor is to overestimate our ability to know and to forget about the relationship between imagination and faith — that ideas and stories become realities in our minds for reasons beyond our control.”
The True Believer is truly in the grip of his own psychology.
In short, there’s always much more to life and to ourselves than we can grasp; so secular life becomes religious for those who recognize their limitations.
WHEN MORE IS MADE LESS
Which is to say: The unfathomable nature of all this complexity creates a “more” that does not require a deity for its existence. The “more” forms over time from myriad evolving situations, coincidences, accidents, mishaps and mistakes — or by the conscious efforts of certain individuals or groups — and it can be left in place, studied and appreciated; it can inspire, enthuse and sustain. Indeed, to explain it away by invoking a deity would — ironically! — diminish its religious quality by making the “more” less.
In “On James,” Robert Talisse and D. Micah Hester explain that William James shied away from embracing either religious or empirical worldviews because they result in what he called a “Block Universe.”
James contends that such views, “commit the same error insofar as they turn away from the vagaries of lived experience for the sake of theorizing a world that is finished, complete and tame. Yet experience teaches that our world is not a finished, rational whole and not reducible to the scientists’ atoms and laws; we live, instead in a ‘half-wild, half-saved universe’ in which ‘possibilities, not finished facts, are the realities with he have actively to deal.’” So again, the X factor looms large.
So I would say Borg has it backwards: The “more” gives rise to confusion, complexity and ambiguity — it keeps giving rise to more, more, more — while it’s the business of theology to make the “more” less through absolute-truth claims.
By putting a fixed meaning on the X factor, theology makes the world seem like an understandable and comprehensible place — but less awesome and inspirational. So the stunningly secular life — if free of absolute beliefs — can be the most religious life of all by allowing the “more” to remain truly more. What would Borg say about that?
MYSTERY AND LIMITATION
I am once again urging that complexity remain central to human life. Or perhaps I am saying that humility should remain central to human life — and it will if we realize we can't separate our worldview from our interests and values.
This doesn’t mean we’re incapable of learning complex things, making hard decisions, solving great mysteries or even discovering the truth. It just means that even if we should stumble on the truth, we can’t know that we know it. To think that we know when we don’t or to think that we know when we really just believe — these are indulgences we must abandon if we want to truly recognize and benefit from the “more.” When we diminish the “more” we diminish ourselves.
In other words, belief is always wishful in nature; we project our hopes on the world and pull back “facts” and doctrines. Perhaps this is unavoidable. But it's not the hallmark of wisdom: It has little to do with diversity and nothing to do with enlightenment.
PS. Upon finishing this essay I started a new book and placed a quote from it at the top of this page. Click here for more Marilynne Robinson.