This morning I finished the book I've been blogging about recently, Agnostic: A Spirited Manifesto, by Lesley Hazleton. It's a wonderfully thoughtful and well-written description of what it means to be an open-minded agnostic (or atheist), rather than a closed-minded religious believer.
Below are some passages that I liked in the concluding chapter, "Imperfect Soul."
Hazleton starts out by debunking the notion of perfection. There's no such thing. Perfection, she says, is an idea, not a fact. This rings true for me, based on my 35 years of experience with an Indian religious organization whose teachings wrongly proclaim that there is such a thing as a "perfect living master."
Actually, there's no evidence that the Radha Soami Satsang Beas organization is led by a guru, or master, who is perfect. Far from it. RSSB gurus make mistakes. Their knowledge is incomplete. They are as clueless as anyone else about what will happen in the future.
In other words, the gurus are flawed human beings, as are we all. Yet their disciples cling to the idea of perfection as a concept with no grounding in reality. Hazleton writes:
Perfection may be an ideal, but whether it's a desirable one is another question. Ideals are by definition products of the imagination rather than of reality; they exist, that is, as ideas, not as facts.
The perfect truths of theology, claimed as "absolute truths," are thus inherently self-contradictory, because as William James noted, truth is always an evolving idea.
"It is temporary and constructed from our own experience..." he wrote. "The 'absolutely' true, meaning what no farther experience will ever alter, is that ideal vanishing-point towards which we imagine all our temporary truths will some day converge." It is, in short, imaginary.
Then Hazleton explores the unappealing rigidity of perfection. The rigidity arises because the imaginary ideal of perfection doesn't tolerate anything other than 100% perfectness. Again, not in reality, but in the religious theology. That produces a dead-end, since there is no way forward once someone or something is viewed as perfect.
There's an icy starkness to perfection, a kind of echoing emptiness. Perfection, that is, is soulless. And lifeless. It's real meaning is right there in its origin: the Latin perficere, to finish or to conclude. A perfect life would thus be one that is completed, and there is only one way that can happen.
Perfection is literally a dead end. And to be alive is necessarily to be incomplete and thus imperfect, each person in his or her own particular way.
This is why the idea of perfectibility seems so hollow to me. The definiteness, the absolutism, the dead-endness of it -- all these leave no room for life.
The perfect tomato in the store turns out to be tasteless, genetically engineered fo shelf appeal, not for the palette. A flawless face seems blankly unapproachable, leaving me unable to do anything but puzzle at its unnatural symmetry. Complete agreement with whatever I might say leaves me gasping for intellectual air, longing for something more than a mirror of my own thoughts.
In the latter part of the chapter, Hazleton speaks about soul. It's a difficult word to define, since people use "soul" in so many different ways. The one thing we know soul is not, of course, is a supernatural something-or-other separate and distinct from the body, since there's no demonstrable evidence of this.
Perhaps you have to be slightly crazy to even try to talk about soul in secular terms. The more you try -- the more I try, in any case -- the greater the risk of falling into cliche, into the trite generalizations and warm fuzziness too often mistaken for spiritual insight.
...A strong whiff of sanctimony hovers over the word, burdened as it has been with such modifiers as blessed and immortal. That tyranny of the definite article -- the soul -- reasserts itself with impeccable conviction, and conventional theology again becomes more hindrance than help.
...Yet I persist, because I sense -- and sense is the only word I can use here -- that it's important to reclaim soul from those who still conceive of it as a thing with an immortal life of its own, independent of the body.
However vague we may be about it, I think most of us recognize soul not as a thing, but as a dimension of being that defies the narrow lens of dogma, going far beyond traditional religious ideas such as those I grew up with.
Here Hazleton does her best to point toward what soul means to her agnostic self. It's a quality of being. It's an emphatic openness to reality, the opposite of walling ourselves behind dogmas of one variety or another. This takes courage, since it is easier to embrace some form of religious absolutism where no doubts or questions are tolerated.
Soul as a matter of courage? If so, it's not the obvious courage of a lauded hero, but the quieter, everyday kind of courage it takes to be open to the world.
It's not that some people have no soul, but that the quality of soul in them seems to have shriveled, turned in on itself as though in retreat. They have taken a defensive position, and built a wall around themselves.
...You wall yourself off when you expect the worst. Better the devil you know, you tell yourself, than the unpredictability of the unknown; better to be ruled by the past than by hope for a different future.
You try to persuade yourself you are strong because you have made yourself impregnable, but you live nonetheless in a state of fear. Your view is blocked. You have closed the gates and walled yourself off from the world -- even, at the extreme, against the world.
And if the gates remain open?
Could having soul be a matter of being brave enough to be vulnerable -- to acknowledge the risks of being vulnerable, that is, and to willingly embrace them nonetheless? Because risks they are. Those I think of as brave souls know this.
In a way, they're the personification of soul music: they often bear the scars of bitter experience, and yet are not ruled by fear or resentment. Not that they are saints; they are as deeply flawed as you or I, but they accept their own flaws, and thus those of others.
And if they seem to have gained a certain ease with the world, it is a hard-earned one. It's as though they have persevered and come out the other end of hardship worn and weathered, but with a deeper appreciation of what it is to be alive.
They welcome both the unknown and the unknowable, explore without preconceptions, and place their faith in trust, preferring the chance of being proved wrong to the illusory certainty of always being right.
Open and closed: perhaps these are the terms in which we need to think. Not soulful or soulless, nor brave souls or timid ones, but open-souled and closed-souled. Where the latter contracts and retreats from others, the former expands, reaches out, is open to the world instead of guarded against it.
Few people are entirely one way or the other, of course. Most of us can open up on occasion, yet are still tempted to close ourselves off when under stress.
We struggle with trust, and uncertainty, and doubt, and find ourselves searching for the security of conviction even as we recognize its falseness. We're brave at times, fearful at others; we're contradictory, and paradoxical, and fallible. Which is to say, we're human.
But at our best, we respond to soul with soul, as happened with someone whose real name I don't even know posted a comment on an earlier attempt of mine to puzzle out what we mean when we say that someone has soul.
"I'm not sure I understand," she wrote (a gentle way of saying that I hadn't been very clear), "but I think I recognize it. It's what makes my heart swell -- what makes me glad to be alive." And then: "Is this it?"