Let’s Hear It for the Dull Habit

Let’s Hear It for the Dull Habit May 5, 2014

“Good Letters” is pleased today to welcome D.G. Myers as a regular contributor.

In early April the MIT physicist and novelist Alan Lightman pitched his tent between an atheism that speaks in science’s name and a scientifically informed faith in God. Reviewing Amir D. Aczel’s new book Why Science Does Not Disprove God for the Washington Post, Lightman distanced himself from the “religious fervor” of New Atheists like Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss, and Sam Harris—he agreed they are “staining the scientific enterprise” by exchanging the scientific method for “backbiting and invective”—but he also rejected efforts like Aczel’s to make overmuch of science’s failure to disprove the existence of God:

The reason that science cannot disprove the existence of God, in my opinion, is that God, as understood by all human religions, exists outside time and space…. The most persuasive evidence of God, according to the great philosopher and psychologist William James in his landmark book The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902), is not physical or objective or provable. It is the highly personal transcendent experience.

This badly misreads James, but in triumphantly producing transcendence as a trump card against atheism (God cannot be reduced to human definition because by definition He transcends human definition), Lightman impoverishes the meaning of religion as badly as any atheist. He reduces it to brawling over the existence of God.

James was contemptuous of any attempt to reduce the religious experience to a single note. “There is no ground for assuming a simple abstract ‘religious emotion’”—not even transcendence—“to exist as a distinct elementary mental affection by itself, present in every religious experience without exception,” he wrote. Among other things, The Varieties of Religious Experience is a celebration of human pluralism. His investigations led James to affirm “the relativity of different types of religion to different types of need.”

Of course, James was no more immune to the dominating cultural influence of Protestantism than is Alan Lightman. He dismisses those for whom religion exists as a “dull habit” and prefers those for whom it is an “acute fever.” He very much likes “personal religion” and very much distrusts its established varieties. Service to God, he declares, “never is felt as a yoke”—never, never, never.

For James, the “individual models” of “instantaneous conversion” are more “typical and worthy of imitation,” to say nothing of being “more interesting dramatically,” than the spiritual adventures of, say, Roman Catholics, for whom “the sacraments and the individual’s ordinary religious duties are practically supposed to suffice to his salvation, even though no acute crisis of self-despair and surrender followed by relief should be experienced.”

Catholicism, he says elsewhere, is “legalistic and moralistic.” About the Jewish religion he has nothing whatever to say.

Transcendence no more provides a commanding view of the religious life than it is the religious emotion. Lightman’s “highly personal transcendent experience” is what Abraham Maslow would have called a peak experience. For the religious man or woman, its peak is even sharper and higher than sex. (Which may be why religious men and women appear so weird to the contemporary culture.)

Transcendence is awesome, as my kids would say. I’ve experienced it—once. But here is the trouble. Sitting around and waiting for it to recur, or resorting to artificial stimulants to arouse its counterfeit, is not much of a religious life.

The Passover festival, just recently concluded, reminded me again this year that the dirty little secret of religion is habit: dull habit, much of the time, especially after a week of eating matsah and leftover gefilte fish with khreyn. Service to God just is a yoke, and in rabbinical literature the yoke is extolled as liberation:

From whomever accepts the yoke of Torah do they remove the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor. And upon whomever removes himself from the yoke of Torah do they lay the yoke of the state and the yoke of hard labor. (Avot 3.5, translated by Jacob Neusner)

The book that turned me toward God—back when I was a teenager, long before I had experienced His transcendence—was Samuel S. Cohon’s Judaism: A Way of Life, first published in 1948. Cohon (1888–1959) was a Reform Jewish theologian who taught at Hebrew Union College for three decades. The “etherealization of religion,” he warns, is as serious a threat to it as idolatry.

Religion’s “practical phase” has few champions, Cohon said. Outsiders to it, yearning for the blessings, “prize religion as a pleasant atmosphere of the soul, as an emotional, poetic, and mystic state of mind…. They separate the religious spirit from religion as an actual experience and as a social institution.” They rob it of any solid form, and like water without a container, it spills across the ground.

Transcendence may be the “most persuasive evidence of God,” but this is not how it operates in the lives of most religious men and women. They do not require evidence of God; their concern is not to defend His existence, but simply to serve Him. Some of them may never even have a “highly personal transcendent experience,” but for those who do, it is less a great and strong wind or an earthquake or fire than a kol d’mamah dakah summoning the believer to go and return to her way.

In Christopher Beha’s astonishing debut novel What Happened to Sophie Wilder (reviewed here), the title character is attending mass at a small parish church when she is invaded by the Holy Spirit—she is taken over by “something outside of herself, something real, not an idea or a conceit or a metaphor”—but rather than pursuing a repetition of the experience, she dedicates herself to caring for her father-in-law as he dies painfully from cancer.

The ordinary religious duties (or what she, as a Catholic, would call humility) are what gives permanence to the moment of transcendence. Neglecting them she might have managed to “hook up” with God, but only briefly and without meaning.

D. G. Myers is a critic and literary historian who taught for nearly a quarter of a century at Texas A&M and Ohio State universities. He is the author of The Elephants Teach and ex-fiction critic for Commentary. He has also written for the New York Times Book Review, the Weekly Standard, Philosophy and Literature, the Sewanee Review, First Things, Jewish Ideas Daily, the Daily Beast, the Barnes & Noble Review, the Journal of the History of Ideas, American Literary History, and other journals.

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  • D G Myers

    If anyone cares, I have written some further reflections on transcendence at A Commonplace Blog: http://dgmyers.blogspot.com/2014/05/more-on-transcendence.html

    • So glad you have a new word-hoard place–I liked this piece and your blog comments as well.

    • Aimee Holbrook

      I do. And I did follow the link. You have a very interesting perspective and it enriches my own. Thank you.

  • Peggy Rosenthal

    Yes, yes! Amen, amen!
    Yesterday at Mass, I was deeply grateful to join in with the congregation’s repetitious responses– grateful to be able to say (and assent in my heart to) the “dull” phrases that we repeat week after week. And grateful then to go home and tend my husband in his chronic illness.
    Thank you for this profound reflection.

  • Amir D. Aczel

    Thanks for mentioning a review of my book. Why don’t you also read the book itself (it comes from your own tradition)–Love to see what you think. All best, Amir

  • Tim

    After losing a child 7 years ago there have what I believe to be moments of transcendence as we found healing along the way. Now dealing with the difficulties of caring for an aging in-law, perhaps my wife and I may find more strenght in the permanence our work gives to our passage and our past. Your thoughts are greatly appreciated. Thank you.

  • Gregory Wolfe

    David, it is wonderful to have you join the Good Letters team. This post is as good an explanation as I’ve found for the phrase some of us have taken to using: that we are “religious but not spiritual”!

  • D G Myers

    Greg: Many thanks. I had not heard that phrase, but I like it—not least because it adopts such an unfashionable attitude toward the tiresome religion/spirituality distinction.

  • Robert Landbeck

    ‘The reason that science cannot disprove the existence of God, in my
    opinion, is that God, as understood by all human religions, exists
    outside time and space.” And is the very same reason to distrust the claims of religion to have understood that reality. Theology, like science is a human intellectual construct. But unlike science, is unable to demonstrate any progress in understanding. Whatever the limitations of science maybe, religion is itself self limiting. And thus unable to make any real contribution to the future of our species. http://www.energon.org.uk

    • Claire Mooney

      Thank you for the extremely pregnant construct. The Myers retort strikes me as specious, a vain attempt to throw your incisive comment back at you in order to dismantle it. Religion is not in the same category as art, literature, music, history or philosophy, though perhaps in its most useful manifestations it can put those other realms of human life into its service. Art (and I include literature and music under that rubric) strives to widen human perception and to advance human experience; history, by implicitly advancing the dynamic human record, can obviously contribute to the future of the species if it is willing to acknowledge, examine, and understand its past. But religion, in and of itself, adopts premises that allow it to do nothing more than spin its wheels. Yes, self-limiting indeed.

      • Robert Landbeck

        Art, literature and music, whatever they may appear within any particualr cultural construct, remain no more than a veil to hide from the less attractive limitaions of human nature itself. The very idea that among discussions of the future of our species is the prospect of extinction at the hands of our own excessive materialism aptly demonstrates the unresolved conundrum that confronts ‘civilization’ ourselves and the earth itself and one that neither science, religion, nor the arts in any of their forms, has any potential to impact for the better. The question must be: does human nature, rooted in an evolutionary paradigm, however ‘dynamic’ even have the potential to realize it’s spiritual and moral aspirations by any path of natural reason? I personally doubt it!

      • D G Myers

        To exhibit the self-contradiction of an argument is not “specious,” no matter how much you may dislike the conclusion. My point is a familiar one: the champions of what Marilynne Robinson calls “parascience” do not themselves practice scientific method in assailing the non-scientific disciplines. They make use of the very non-scientific disciplines they assail.

        • Claire Mooney

          I stand by the characterization of “specious”…with the additional reinforcing realization that you seem to dismiss what Landbeck and I have expressed because you dislike our conclusions. But you are correct that you and he (and we) are “talking past each other,” except that neither Landbeck nor I has been audacious enough to claim that we have “the more interesting position”! That said, I do wish you well as a “regular contributor”! Ciao!

      • Aimee Holbrook

        Well put.

    • Scott Bailey

      “Theology, like science is a human intellectual construct. But unlike
      science, is unable to demonstrate any progress in understanding.” Understanding of what? What sort of progress?

      • Robert Landbeck

        Moral Progress is the bottom line. And I would suggest that as a species, like all other species, we are fixed within limits and any product of natural reason is incapable of the means to breaking free. Once only has to consider the those moral failings that have been with ‘civiliizaton’ for as long as it has been chronicled. War and conflict, social injustice, pestilence and plague, extremes of wealth, how long of a list would you like? The unfolding environmental crisis is above all a ‘moral’ crisis. What other species destroys what makes it possible to exist? Only US. We are remain the problem.

        • Scott Bailey

          What “moral progress” has science demonstrated?

          You seem to be unfamiliar with both the day to day lives-in-faith of a great many people, and with the purpose of religion. The fact that we live in a fallen world filled with the evils of mankind is not a failing of religion. Mankind is a sinful creature. Quel surpris. Religion will likely never raise our species above that sinful nature, but as I say, that’s not a failure of religion.

          • Robert Landbeck

            I personally cannot comprehend a God that has any other interest in our species except to ‘restore’ or ‘raise’ that sinful, fallen nature to it’s original spiritual state of righteousness. I must continue to doubt that religion has anything to do with God. And that theology is not a valid human intellectual project. Just vanity chasing after wind!

          • Scott Bailey

            Christianity, of course, is about grace. It operates at the level of the individual, however, and it is the job of the individual to strive toward grace. The failings of our species are the failings of countless individuals acting through free will. Christianity has never denied this. I find it hard to believe that people would rather destroy each other and act out of selfishness than be each others’ keepers, but that’s what happens. I am not so vain as to blame God for that. I am also not so vain as to offer God a job description.

          • Robert Landbeck

            “The failings of our species are the failings of countless

            individuals acting through free will.”

            Free will is a concept that is as contentious as consciousness, both in the secular and religious milieu.
            Obviously yet to be fully understood with any precision, it allows one to project on to it virtually any opinion that suits our preconceived notions, prejudices or bias.
            My own take on the matter is that if human will were subject to the moral authority that must be the will of God, we would have both a ‘Creation’ and a ‘Kingdom’. Obviously that is not the case. So ‘free will’ remains free from the authority of God which would make for true righteousness. This is the theodicy question, but I am unable to accept religious apologetics, and concluded that religion does not teach the will of God which is the essence of true religion

      • Aimee Holbrook

        It is pretty clear what he means, and the examples, which are innumerable, really aren’t necessary for his point to register. (Perhaps my quibble will put an end to the quibbling.)

    • YondCassius

      “And is the very same reason to distrust the claims of religion to have understood that reality.”
      Exactly, thanks!

  • D G Myers

    Robert Landbeck: Here are some of the other human disciplines “unable to demonstrate any progress in understanding”: art, literature, music, history, philosophy. I prefer a human experience in which these are included. And by the way, is your argument against theology and religion a scientific argument? If not perhaps there are some other ways to argue, if you are to be believed, that are worth listening to.

    • Robert Landbeck

      My argument against theoogy and religion is not against the idea or potential of God, only that the all too human attempt to comprehend that Mind by systematic theology, has provide neither insight into God or the human condition that would allow for the further ethical development of our species. One only has to consider the world wide sexual abuse and financial scandals of the roman church to view the same institutional mindset and limitations that exist throughout culture. If there is a God, instead of dumbing down the soul to it’s lowest common denominator {natural law theory] He should be able to raise us up above the corruptions that natural law is heir to.

      • D G Myers

        You and I are talking past each other, Mr Landbeck. In my original essay I refused to reduce religion to “brawling over the existence of God.” I think I’ll stand by my first refusal. What I am beginning to wonder, though, is if you even read my essay, since I conclude it by saying that, for many religious women and men, the “concern is not to defend [God’s] existence, but simply to serve Him.” If you would prefer to hijack this discussion thread to bang your atheistic drum, go right ahead. But don’t pretend to be debating me in the process.

        • Robert Landbeck

          Not really . My concern and my position is that we have not understood God correctly, thus we cannot serve or worship Him according to His will. Simple!

          • D G Myers

            And my position—the more interesting position, more native to religion as historically practiced—is that men and women need not understand God to serve him. After all, I don’t understand the first thing about my wife, but I dote upon her slavishly.

          • Robert Landbeck

            You are or course welcome to your position. but when I showed your comment to my wife of many years, “After all, I don’t understand the first thing about my wife, but I dote upon her slavishly” she felt rather sorry for you.

          • D G Myers

            Luckily, my happiness does not depend upon your wife’s opinion of me!

            Seriously, though, my point derives from Levinas, whom I shall be discussing in my next post for Good Letters. In brief, Levinas argues that to understand another—to grasp her—is to do violence to her. Our moral duty is to respond to her. (And God is no different on this showing.)

          • Robert Landbeck

            Time for me to wish you well and goodby.

  • Philip Deaver

    While I do not, cannot practice my religion (Catholic), I do often go to the Trappist monastery in Kentucky, as I did this past year with my dad’s brother, an 80 year old priest. We were there just short of a week. The Trappists are silent, of course, but for their chorus of reflections during the prayer calls. In silence, there is no arcane journey into tautology–instead, somehow (it’s a mystery to me, I must say), faith takes hold and actual joy. Another thing I notice there is that there is actual communication with my uncle as we sit at lunch in silence together or shoulder to shoulder in the balcony of Gethsemane’s stark but beautiful chapel. Perhaps, I sometimes think, there are no words for all this. There are no words.

  • YondCassius

    “…a scientifically informed faith in God>“

    The article lost me right here since after decades of serious inquiry on the topic I can only consider this an oxymoron ad a self-contradiction and to just chuck it blithely in here seems wildly inappropriate.

    • Nick Krause

      Well, if you hadn’t stopped reading after the sentence you partially quoted, you might have understood that the article is not a defense of a scientifically informed faith in God. The main point of the article is that transcendence is not enough to sustain faith, and so one needs a relationship with God that permeates through the ordinary and everydayness of our lives. The encounter with God through transcendence will become fruitless without living day to day with the memory of His presence.

  • YondCassius

    Over 2500 years ago Hippocrates of Cos is said to have observed that “To really know is science; to merely believe you know is ignorance.”

    So far only the proper use of fact and logic — science; common sense; epistemology — have proven to be effective paths to that real knowledge.

    By contrast religious-type faith has never led to real knowledge even once in the entire history of mankind. Not even once!

    Not demonstrably at least and lucky guesses don’t count.

    End of story. One might hope. Vainly, of course, for belief springs eternal..