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Thank you so much for your candid and probing response; it is most illuminating.
Before addressing your final question, I am going to risk characterizing your presentation of religious faith. Some of our readers, if not you yourself, may find this presumptuous; if so, I accept their criticism.
It seems to me that your version of religion is a highly intellectualized one–admirably reflecting your own passions. But those aspects of faith which you label “kitsch,” Michael, are as central to many believers’ experience of religion as a drive to ask questions. The Church itself has not discouraged–one might even say it has authorized–such manifestations of kitsch as relic worship, rosary counting, and saint idolatry (see, for example, the cult of the Virgin of Guadalupe). Papal Rome has even done its own brisk business in “buying and selling.”
These manifestations of “peasant piety,” as you call them, suggest to me that for many people, religion is as much about providing an amulet against misfortune and a shelter from fear and death as it is about intellectual inquiry.
And a non-believer looking in sees not just the metaphysics but also the Fra. Galvao pills and the reliquaries and has to decide whether the entire package makes sense in light of what he already knows about the world. That’s why I would have loved to know how you approach claims from other religions. Do you think there’s any difference in efficacy, for example, between a rabbit’s foot and a monkey’s paw in protecting against misfortune, say, if a devout practitioner of the Yoruba religion insists that the monkey’s paw channels his ancestor’s spirits for his benefit? Do you think it’s appropriate in deciding whether the monkey’s foot possesses such a divine power to ask basic questions of proof and causality? And is there a difference between an animal appendage and a St. Christopher’s medal?
In your latest post and in No One Sees God , you make the drive “to keep questioning, infinitely” the hallmark of humanity and the sign of God’s presence within us. I do not understand why that particular drive, as admirable as it is, requires or suggests a Creator or Answering Presence any more than any other human trait. There are probably as many if not more people with an insatiable drive for power as there are individuals with an insatiable drive to ask questions. There is also a widespread desire for a free lunch–witness the number of people who play the lottery. Many individuals put “enormous energy” into the drive for sex. I do not, however, infer from the prevalence of such drives that there is a priapic divinity or one who lusts for dominance, or that there is an Answering Presence that provides windfalls to people and an all-you-can-eat banquet in the sky.
As for whether I am aware of the “presence of God in [my] own mind,” the answer is no. I share your wonder, Michael, at the amazing fecundity of human creation. But I experience the insupportable beauty of a Schubert song or the astounding reliability of an economy that daily brings us clean water and fresh milk as a human triumph. Far from living in a meaningless world, as you suggested in First Things (“Atheists invent a heroic image for themselves . . . to cover up the emptiness of meaning in human life”), I find the world awash in meanings, more than I can possibly take in.