Two days to go to the release of the agnostic manifesto, and as I leaf through it, I keep coming across passages that seem to say what I’m thinking better than I can, even though it was me who wrote them. Like this one, almost at random:
It’s often assumed that because I study and write about religion (and politics, and existence), I harbor a deep longing for belief. “Ah, you’re a seeker,” I’m told, which invariably sounds to me like I’m part of a ’60s pop group or some new religious order.
The inference strikes me as odd. If I studied crime, for instance, I doubt if many people (with the exception perhaps of strict Freudians) would then assume that I harbor a deep longing to be a criminal. Instead, you might say that scholars are the Sherlock Holmeses of religion.
Like Sherlock, they notice, investigate, probe, take nothing for granted. They’re intellectually engaged observers, and if they are to observe well, a certain detachment is required, as it is with psychotherapists. Yet many people seem to think that the study of religion leaves little room for detachment. Thus the insistence that there has to be a personal search on my part. Without that, it seems, what excites me or moves me to action or simply gets me out of bed in the morning — what makes me not merely accepting of life, but eager to live it — is somehow lacking a ‘higher’ dimension.
Not only am I thought to be lost (“you’ll find your way,” I’m assured), but my being lost is understood as distressing. I find myself standing in front of some lost-and-found department of the soul, where wariness of certainty is interpreted as a pathetic lack of it, and appreciation of unknowability as a sign of ignorance.
But if I am to be considered lost, at least let me be considered happily so. Certainly, as Walter Benjamin noted, “not to find one’s way in a city may well be uninteresting and banal; it requires ignorance, nothing more. But to lose oneself in a city as one loses oneself in a forest — that calls for quite a different schooling.”
Rebecca Solnit took this further in A Field Guide to Getting Lost (a title I envied from the moment I saw it): “To be lost is to be fully present, and to be fully present is to be capable of being in uncertainty and mystery.” It becomes the paradoxical art of “being at home in the unknown,” when “the world has become larger than your knowledge of it.”
You become conscious, whether with excitement or with fear, that the world does not revolve around you.