Friday, December 19, 2008

The Infamous Atheist Sign in the Capitol Rotunda

At finals time I tend to lose track of the news. Hence, I entirely missed the recent furor about the atheist sign posted in the Washington State Capitol rotunda, in the vicinity of a manger scene. (The trick has since been performed elsewhere, including the Illinois Capitol). The sign, and the controversy surrounding it, were brought to my attention this morning by none other than Chuck Norris.

Chuck (if I may call him that) had a gigantic editorial printed on the opinion page of the Stillwater News Press, in which he railed against the hateful atheists—describing his response, modestly enough, as the equivalent of a “roundhouse kick” against those responsible for anti-religious hate-mongering.

If it was a roundhouse kick, I think it largely missed its target. But I suspect that the more apt metaphor would be a series of jabs, some of which struck glancing blows. But what interested me about Chuck’s editorial wasn’t the merit of his reply (or lack thereof), but the facts about the case. Both a manger scene and an atheist sign had been put up in the rotunda. And the sign read as follows: “At this season of the Winter Solstice, may reason prevail. There are no gods, no devils, no angels, no heaven and hell. There is only our natural world. Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

The message (sans reference to the Winter Solstice) was familiar to me, of course. It’s the dominant message coming out of Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and other recent atheist bestsellers, albeit expressed in a brief slogan and without supporting arguments.

And so, since I’ve just finished writing a book critically assessing the arguments in support of this very message, I felt I should consider the issues surrounding the posting of this sign.

The first thing I want to say is that there is more than one issue here. There is, of course, the substance of the message itself, and then there is the question about the moral propriety of posting it in a public venue adjacent to a manger scene in December. But what I want to think about first is the Washington State policy that permits a Christian group to place a nativity scene in the Capitol Building.

Now at first this may seem like a blatant case of state sponsorship of religion, except for the fact that Washington state has apparently made the same space available in a non-sectarian way to other religious groups that want to put things up (a Menorah has been put up in the past). And this year, back in October, state officials agreed to let an atheist group, the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF), put up its own display. What appeared, a few weeks ago, was the now-infamous atheist sign.

In one sense what we have here is an example of state officials trying to fairly carry out one interpretation of our nation’s commitment to church/state separation and freedom of religion. According to the interpretation expressed by the decision-makers in Washington State (and, apparently, elsewhere), what the state should do is provide a neutral context in which divergent comprehensive worldviews can express their beliefs. And instead of doing so by purging all state institutions of religious symbols or ideas, the strategy is to make sure that all comers have the same opportunity (should they wish to avail themselves of it) to express themselves in, say, a public school holiday concert or a Capitol rotunda. And this includes not only those who believe in a transcendent reality and have certain ideas about it, but also those who believe that the natural world is all that there is. In the broadest sense of the term, the latter is a “religious expression” as much as any other. If Christians and Jews and Muslims and Hindus should be free to express their faith, then so should atheists, even if their “faith” is essentially that none of the things in which religious believers place faith are real.

Now in theory, I like this approach better than the “purge all state institutions of everything remotely religious” approach. But there are difficulties that arise in a society in which one religion dominates as much as Christianity does in the US. When that is the case, it wouldn’t be at all uncommon that an open invitation to religious communities to put up symbols of their religious holidays in a public space would lead to a nativity scene promptly going up and nothing else (other religious communities feeling reluctant, perhaps, to call too much attention to themselves). Put simply, an open invitation by the government runs the risk of combining with pervasive social forces and majority power to ensure that the invitation is only taken up by the dominant religion.

This risk is magnified if the state does not in any way regulate the content of the religious ideas being put on display. For example, suppose that the state lets all religious comers post a display in the rotunda of a public building, regardless of the substantive message expressed in that display. And then suppose that a Jewish community group puts up a Menorah. And then, a few days later, a radical Christian group puts up a signs which says “The people that put up that Menorah are all going to roast forever in the fires of hell.”

If this were a real possibility—if the Jewish group knew that putting up its Menorah could very well generate such a response, and that the state would do nothing to block such public hate speech—then the Jewish group might well decide to spare its community the hateful message by not taking up the state’s invitation to express its religion. And so powerful social forces, unrestrained by the government, could turn what in principle is an open invitation to express religious views into a lopsided forum for the promulgation of the dominant religion.

Of course, this danger could be minimized if the state exercised its judgment concerning what, exactly, could be put on display. Perhaps it could say something like, “Expressing your religion in symbols and images and words is fine, but attacking other religions is unacceptable.” But if it does so, it runs the risk of being accused of censorship.

For these reasons, it might be safest for the state to simply keep its rotundas (literally and metaphorically) free of all religious symbolism. But the effect of doing so will have its own costs, of course. I would much rather go to a holiday concert at my son’s public school in which I was treated to an array of holiday songs from a diversity of religious traditions, than I would a concert in which all we got were “Let’s Go for a Sleigh Ride” and “Frosty the Snow Man.” The fact is that religion, in its diverse forms, fires the soul in ways that often spill over into great art. And I would prefer to live in a world where all of us can appreciate, if just on an aesthetic level, public displays of these creative expressions of the religious consciousness.

So I think there’s no easy answer to how the government should best pursue its mandate to refrain from endorsing a particular religion and to foster freedom of religious expression. The general strategy pursued in Washington state is, it seems to me, a defensible approach.

But if this approach is going to be pursued, government officials need to think carefully about parameters. A Menorah is a symbol related to a religious story, one that brings inspiration to many people. A nativity, likewise, is an image that evokes a religious story that many find inspirational. Both symbols are polysemitic—that it, they do not have a single uniform meaning, but can be interpreted differently by different viewers. Many view the nativity and see in it the message that God rejects human hierarchies and affirms the dignity of the poor. But Dan Barker, head of the Freedom From Religion Foundation, claims to see in it the message that everyone who does not bow down before Jesus is bound for hell.

Now I’m sure there are experiences in Barker’s life that explain why he sees such a loathsome message in an image of shepherds and kings and farm animals gathered in awed silence around a newborn baby. But it should be plain that the nativity image does not say this. The atheist sign, by contrast, does say that “Religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds”—in slightly different terms, that religion, without distinction, is a source of moral corruption and irrationality.

Now, as I argue in my book, I think that we can identify properties which, if possessed by a so-called religion, do render it a source of moral corruption and irrationality. But we can find religious believers whose faith lacks these harmful properties, and hence who are not “guilty as charged.” In short, I think that the message on this atheist sign is mistaken.

But the state should surely not welcome some religious expressions and exclude others based on judgments about truth. For obvious reasons, doing so would be a recipe for the state to take sides among religious options, and therefore abandon its mandate to refrain from endorsing one religion over others. Freedom of religion evaporates the moment that the government thinks it has the insight and authority to judge which religions are true and which are false. We see this in Muslim nations. We saw it in the atheist Soviet Union. We saw it in the explicitly Christian nations of the middle ages.

Now there is a great deal of truth to the insight that dominant religions can weather harsh criticism from disempowered minorities far better than the other way around. Thus, there is far more harm in allowing the dominant religion to ridicule and denigrate minority religions (including atheism) than in allowing minority groups to take pot-shots at some religious Behemoth. From this perspective, it might be said that allowing an atheist group to use a state forum to attack the moral and intellectual integrity of those who are religious isn’t all that serious a matter.

In fact, it probably isn’t. But I don’t know that I want public officials to be in the business of deciding who can weather attacks on their belief system and who can’t. And so my inclination is to say that when the public school puts on its multicultural holiday concert, the officials shouldn’t decide that songs explicitly attacking Christianity are okay, but ones that attack Judaism or atheism are not. Instead, they should probably just agree not to have religious attack-songs on the program—even if, as may be the case, the atheist choir director has recently composed a beautiful four-part harmony setting of the text to the FFRF sign. This choir director should have a venue in which to perform his creation, but the public school concert probably isn’t the right one.

Of course, deciding to keep religious attack-songs out of a holiday concert is a different matter than deciding to keep attack messages out of the holiday displays in the Washington State Capitol rotunda. In the case of the public school concert, it is employees of the school who are putting together the program. In the rotunda, what we have is a state policy of permitting religious groups to sponsor displays. So the choice of what is displayed is made, not by state officials, but by these groups. Do uniform criteria which preclude explicit attacks on other worldviews, communicated to all who wish to put up a display, count as inappropriate censorship?

This question inspires in me another, related question: Does atheism have enough affirmative content that it can be anything but a denigration of the alternatives? According to Sam Harris, the answer is no. In his Letter to a Christian Nation, he maintains that atheism “is not a philosophy; it is not even a view of the world; it is simply an admission of the obvious.” By “the obvious” he means that there is no God (something that is far from obvious to many others). So, according to Harris, atheism is exclusively negative in its content. It is nothing but a claim to the effect that every religious believer is wrong--and, in his view, obviously wrong.

But even if he is right about atheism, it doesn’t follow that an atheist display couldn’t appear in a public forum guided by a prohibition on attacks against other worldviews. To say, “I think you are mistaken” isn’t an attack. It's just disagreement. To say, “We don’t believe in any higher power that can redeem us” is not an attack on those who do. But what about saying, “Those who believe other than we do with respect to the existence of a transcendent reality are lacking in both moral and intellectual integrity”? That sounds like an attack—one that is commonly heard among religious extremists of every stripe, including, recently, among atheists. And while the FFRF sign doesn’t say precisely this, it comes awfully close.

Is it state censorship to require that divergent perspectives express themselves in the rotunda with a measure of decorum and mutual respect? If it is, then I would say that the state should probably leave the rotunda empty. But I hope that fair and reasonable policies can be developed, policies which can help to put on display the rich and varied textures of our society, without at the same time creating a venue for our intolerance, animosity, and derision of those who disagree with us.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Pragmatic Assessment of Religious Belief

A couple of months ago, John Shook expressed his frustration with the tactics used by religious believers to immunize their beliefs from rational criticism. One of his concerns had to do with the pragmatic assessment of religion, especially Christianity. The idea behind pragmatic assessment is, roughly, that one way to evaluate a belief system is to look at how it affects behavior. If these effects are positive, then that speaks in favor of the belief system. If the effects are negative, then that speaks against it.

Now there are a range of difficulties here that I could get into, having to do with how we arrive at the value system that we then make use of for the sake of doing pragmatic assessments of beliefs. But I will set that issue aside for now (perhaps taking it up in a future post), and assume that we at least have a general consensus on basic values that we can appeal to when assessing the pragmatic effects of beliefs and belief systems.

Shook clearly thinks that there is considerable bad behavior that can be directly linked to Christianity—such things, I suppose, as crusades and witch burnings and Inquisitions; although I would also add the heterosexist marginalization of gays and lesbians and the patriarchal subordination of women. Shook’s first complaint is that, when confronted with this sordid history, Christians will say that “it’s the bad Christians doing the bad things (or they really weren’t Christians at all).”

His second complaint focuses on the use of the Christian doctrine of original sin. “Very convenient,” Shook complains, “how Christianity ensures that we are already such bad sinners that no bad behavior at all need ever be attributed to a Christian belief.”

Now I think there is some merit to both of Shook’s complaints. And any reader of my book will know that I take pragmatic assessment of belief very seriously. In fact, it is one of the main aims of my book to distinguish between ways of being religious that are pragmatically pernicious, and ways of being religious that are pragmatically benign. In a recent post on this blog, I attacked the doctrine of hell on essentially pragmatic grounds, arguing that the doctrine tends to promote and perpetuate ideological in-group/out-group dichotomies.

Although I think Shook is right that some Christians throw up smoke screens to block pragmatic assessments of their beliefs, I think we need to make some distinctions so as not to cast blame where it isn’t deserved.

First, there’s a difference between, on the one hand, resisting pragmatic criticism of your faith by blaming all the bad things done in its name on “bad” Christians or pretenders to the faith, and, on the other hand, pointing out that there are different versions of Christianity, and that not every version has the same pragmatic effects. The former is an attempt to avoid pragmatic assessment. The latter is an insistence that such pragmatic assessment be conducted with care so as to avoid false generalizations. Furthermore, with any complex belief system, it is never adequate to simply blame the belief system as a whole for specific negative pragmatic consequences. The diagnostic challenge is to identify more specifically where the problem lies. If we don’t take this diagnostic challenge seriously, we risk throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

In my book, I make extensive appeal to Plutarch’s distinction between what he calls religion and what he calls superstition. The former is about living in the hope that the universe is fundamentally on the side of goodness. The latter is about trying to appease a supernatural tyrant in the sky. I maintain that these two phenomena could not be more different, especially on a pragmatic level. And I argue, furthermore, that both the divine command theory of ethics and scriptural fundamentalism, when embraced by Christians, tend to move them away from religion (in Plutarch’s sense) and into the dangerous domain of superstition. Also, in my book, I distinguish religion from what I call religionism, which is a kind of bifurcating ideology that designates in-groups and out-groups according to religious allegiances. Religionism, like racism and ethnocentrism, is a dangerous belief system that foments violence and oppression. But religious worldviews, experiences, and ways of life needn’t be paired with religionism in this sense.

My point, of course, is that there can be very good reasons why a Christian might want to say that Christianity in some broad sense should not be blamed for the evils that have historically been done in Christianity’s name. It may be that a careful investigation will reveal that the source of the negative behaviors can be traced to specific doctrines or patterns of thinking that are not essential to Christianity, even if they have often been embraced by Christians at various times and in various places. What the pragmatic criticism therefore warrants is not a blanket criticism of Christianity, but rather the rejection of those versions of Christianity that embrace these troublesome elements.

To me, however, the more interesting of Shook’s complaints is the one that implicitly gestures to the doctrine of original sin. His thinking seems to be this: Christianity has built into its worldview a picture of human depravity that essentially immunizes it from pragmatic criticism. Since any evils done by Christians can be chalked up to the effects of original sin, the proverbial chickens can be neatly kept from ever coming home to roost. It will never be Christianity’s fault that these evils are done. The blame will lie with our sinful human nature, a nature that prevents even the most sincere Christians from behaving in the praiseworthy ways that Christianity should inspire—and would inspire in the absence of sin’s corrupting influence.

I think that Shook is absolutely right on track here, in terms of how the doctrine of original sin is too often invoked. And what is so pernicious, in my judgment, about this use of the doctrine, is that it is fundamentally at odds with where a careful theological understanding of the doctrine should take us.

For Christianity, sin is the Problem (with a capital “P”). It names what’s wrong with the world and with our lives. At heart, sin refers to the state of alienation from God and from one another. Specific behaviors referred to as “sins” are merely by-products of this condition of alienation, which cuts us off from the source of all good and all value. It’s this state of alienation that is our “original” human predicament—our starting point, if you will. And until we move past this starting point, until our alienation from the divine is overcome, we will continue to be in bondage to affective states that render us too cowardly to stand up for what is right, too superficial to attend to what really matters, too fixated on earthly security or immediate appetites to care for our neighbors in need.

Christianity professes to offer a pathway out of this original predicament. It tells us that we can find salvation from the ravages of sin. Here, “salvation” is taken to mean something far more profound than getting into heaven when we die. Salvation isn’t something that needs to wait until death, nor is it about enjoying some paradise realm of endless pleasures. It is, instead, about overcoming the state of alienation that traps us in our narrow egos, that cuts us off from one another and from the source of all value. It is, in other words, about becoming connected to the whole of reality through bonds of love. And while the “beloved community” may require a level or reciprocity we are unlikely to enjoy in this life, we come closer to salvation even in this life when our love extends around us in such a way that we become catalysts for the promulgation of loving community. When Christianity speaks of salvation from sin, this is what is most profoundly meant.

But if this is right, if in some way Christianity offers the cure for sin, then shouldn’t Christianity be uniquely susceptible to pragmatic assessment?

I think, in fact, that it should. But let me be careful about something up front. If we are to speak precisely, it would be a mistake to say that Christianity claims to be the cure for sin. Rather, it claims to teach us about the cure.

Of course, there are complications galore, some of the most theologically difficult pertaining to the relationship between justification and sanctification (two important elements in the Christian understanding of salvation). But I want to sidestep these complications to make a general point, which is this: There are different ways of developing and interpreting Christian teachings, including teachings about sin and grace. And these alternatives need to be assessed on their own terms.

Some, for example, think that salvation comes from accepting the truth of certain doctrines about Jesus, or from accepting the inerrancy of the Bible. I’m suspicious of all such views for a number of reasons. Some of those reasons are pragmatic. If salvation comes from accepting the truth of particular religious teachings, then we should expect that those who strive diligently to believe the relevant teachings will lead lives that are discernibly better, in a moral sense, than are the lives of those who do not. But in my (admittedly anecdotal) experience, this isn’t what I observe. Instead, it seems to me that there are people from a diversity of religions who exhibit what I would call “saintliness,” and that across religions there are doctrinal devotees who are as far from saintliness as one could imagine. And this constitutes a pragmatic reason to be skeptical of the idea that doctrinal commitment as such offers any kind of real salvation from the power of sin.

My own understanding of Christian theology is a roughly Lutheran one: salvation comes, not from anything that I do or believe, but from what a benevolent God does on the basis of unconditional love. In Luther’s language, our salvation comes from divine grace (mediated through Christ's work on the cross--but addressing that issue is something I will need to explore in a later post). On this view, our salvation is not something that is in our power. What is in our power is whether we block the influence of divine grace or open ourselves up to it. And one of the chief ways that we block its influence is by insisting on earning salvation for ourselves—or, stated in more secular terms, by clinging to the idea that our happiness can and should be earned by our own efforts. The idea here is that we have a right to be happy only if we’re good enough, and the responsibility for being “good enough” must rest with us.

According to Lutheran theology, this “works righteousness” is a recipe for beating ourselves up for our inevitable failures and shortcomings—or worse, for hiding from and denying our failures and shortcomings, since we can’t face them honestly without believing that we deserve only misery. In other words, works righteousness is a pathway either to false self-righteousness or to self-loathing. But more profoundly, it stands in the way of the only real pathway to salvation from the effects of sin: opening ourselves to the transforming power of a transcendent benevolence.

So, how do we pragmatically assess this version of Christian theology, which I will call the theology of grace? The difficulty here is that, while some Christians interpret their faith in this way and internalize it, others in the very same congregations are mouthing platitudes from the pews without giving them any real thought, while still others are so deeply habituated into works righteousness that they twist and distort the theology of grace even as they espouse it, turning it into another species of works righteousness.

So how do we make sure, when we try to pragmatically assess the value of a theology of grace, that we adequately distinguish those who really embrace such a theology from those who embrace something that resembles it only in the most superficial way?

Put simply, how do we make sure that our pragmatic assessment is focused on those who really are striving to put their trust in a benevolent higher power that can work through us and in us to help us overcome bad habits and impulses we just can’t seem to resist by ourselves?

My suggestion is this: we should look, not at the church down the road, but at our local meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous.

But for a detailed discussion of the religious significance of AA, I must hold off for a later post.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Problem of Grading

This week, for me, is finals week...and as always, this time of the academic year brings with it the dreadful task of poring through student journals, final papers, and final exams. My best friend was once asked, by a student, how he managed to make it through 40 ten-page papers in a week, especially when he was in the habit of giving careful feedback to each paper. His answer? "I drink."

Apparently, one student didn't chuckle with the rest of the class. Instead, he complained on the student teaching evaluation that his professor admitted to being inebriated while grading. The department head, upon reading this, felt compelled to invite my friend into his office to explain. "Oh," said my friend. "The student misunderstood. I didn't say I get drunk. I said I drink."

"Ah," replied the chair. "Very good. On your way, then."

Teachers have a variety of strategies for coping with grading. One friend bakes herself a tray of brownies, and rewards herself with a brownie every time she finishes some milestone number of papers. And then there is the strategy of putting the pile of exams on one side of you, and a bottle of scotch on the other. When you finish one or the other, you're done for the night.

When I'm in the middle of a stack of term papers, and I realize that even though I feel as if my brain is about to leak out my ears I still have twenty papers left to grade, I feel as if an oppressive--nay, almost demonic--power has taken over my existence, insinuating tendrils of darkness into my mind, replacing all hopeful thoughts, all joy, all images of beauty, with one more awkwardly convoluted sentence, one more fallacious argument, one more redundancy, one more "Since the beginning of time, human beings all over the planet have wrestled with questions of right and wrong, struggling with age-old questions that nobody knows the answer to. One such question is abortion."

And I think to myself, as I reach for the bottle of scotch: "Were there an all-knowing, all-powerful, and wholly-good God, then that God would know about grading. That God would be able to eliminate grading. That God would want to eliminate grading. And yet there is grading. And so, it seems, there cannot be a God." And despair seizes hold and will not release its infernal grip.

Until I realize, somehow, once more, I've finished. I've graded them all. And the clouds lift. I have passed through the dark night of the soul, and found that there is, on the far side, the golden light of dawn.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Finding Religion on Facebook

It is interesting when and where one has religious experiences. Many report having them when communing with nature, others while engaged in charitable work. Some claim that religious worship or sacraments bring an awareness of the divine. Others find God in moments of solitary prayer, or feel a connection with the transcendent when they meditate.

Today, I was surprised by an experience that I would describe as religious, but which came over me while playing around—of all things—on Facebook. A college friend of mine had posted a picture of himself as a little boy, holding hands with his grandfather and looking up with delight into his grandfather’s face. In the picture, the two are on a walk together, both dressed in suits. In my friend’s description of the picture, he notes that this was something they did regularly—putting on their fine clothes and walking together, hand in hand through the streets of Reykjavik.

It’s one of those photographs that captures more than just a visual impression. It evokes a moment in time and the feelings that pervaded that moment. As I looked at it the photo came alive, and this personal exchange—the tender smile on the old man’s face, the unguarded delight in the boy—began to resonate with universal meanings. It was as if I was looking at a clue to the meaning of life, or more than that: the key to it.

I read the comments that had been made about the picture (it garnered a number of them, probably because the picture was so powerful)—and I learned that at the time this picture was taken, the grandfather was dying. But in the moment captured by that photograph, death isn’t written on the grandfather’s face, and there are no hints of anticipated loss in the little boy’s expression. Both are present to each other, in the moment, experiencing it and each other fully. For the space of a breath they’ve left behind the world of time, of transience and finitude.

Or that’s how it looked to me, as I sat in front of my computer gazing raptly at this image, blinking back unexpected emotion. Eventually I began to think about my own grandfather, the Norwegian with a trace of gypsy in his blood, the passionate Baptist preacher who’d once been an atheist and a Marxist, and who in his final years, as cancer ate away at his flesh, lived in stark terror of death (as if he were afraid that all his pronouncements from the pulpit would be proved wrong).

My grandfather had many admirable qualities, but he was far from a perfect man. He was part of the resistance in Denmark during the Nazi occupation, risking his life to do what he could to protect those most in danger from the occupying power. In the aftermath of the war he ministered to a young Nazi sympathizer who’d been convicted of high treason and was slated for execution. My grandfather kept pace with him as the young man was led to the firing squad, sustaining him with words of compassion and hope.

But he was also a man with a volatile temper, at least in his younger days. He beat his children. There’s evidence that early in his ministry, in the anticlimactic years after the great religious awakening he’d led in a small Norwegian town, he cheated on his wife.

But the man I knew wasn’t the child beater. Nor was it the agent of the resistance. The man I knew was the one who, when I was three years old, squatted down and held out his arms to me when I came off the airplane. I remember racing to him and throwing myself into his arms, and him sweeping me up and laughing and pressing his cheek against my hair.

The man I knew was the one who carried me through the forest at a mad run after I’d been stung in the eyelid by a bee. He was afraid I was allergic to bee stings. He was afraid that I might die, there in the woods. And so he ran for all he was worth, clutching me to him.

I can’t remember the pain. I can’t remember screaming, although I was surely squalling so they could hear me miles away. What I remember is the roughness of his cheek against mine, and the strength of his arms, and the scent of him—which in later years I came to know was the smell of cheap Aquavelva aftershave. On him it smelled good.

In these moments with my grandfather I existed in the moment, stepping out of the tide of time, the endless forward rush. It’s no surprise to me at all that this happens when human love is felt most keenly. There is a link, it seems to me, between love and the eternal.

And so I looked at this picture, which I’d stumbled across on Facebook, and I felt abruptly lifted out of myself. I felt that I was looking through a window to the eternal. This is what abides there, I thought. This is what abides in the mind of God.

And for a moment I just stayed in that space, savoring it, feeling it as an ache behind my eyes. And then, below the picture, I wrote my own comment, which included these words:

“Here’s what I think it means, on a deep level, to believe in God: it means that moments like this one, so imperfectly preserved in a picture, are imprinted in eternity, not lost but tenderly and reverently safeguarded by a fundamental reality, something beyond the empirical skin of the world, something that we come closest to in this life when we laugh like a child looking up into a beloved face.”