Jack Miles has had a long and varied history with religion. As a young man looking for purpose, he became a member of the Catholic Jesuit order. Later, disillusioned with organized Christianity, he stopped believing in God but continued to take an academic interest in faith. Now, at seventy-three, he’s a churchgoing Episcopalian and the editor of The Norton Anthology of World Religions, released in 2014.
Miles is best known for his Pulitzer Prize–winning book God: A Biography, which asks us to look at the God of the Hebrew Bible the way we might the protagonist of a novel: examining what the deity says and does to determine how his “character” changes over time. The follow-up, Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, invites readers to look at Jesus in similar fashion and earned the author a MacArthur Fellowship.
Born in Chicago in 1942, Miles was raised in a working-class, mostly Catholic neighborhood but was not, he says, a “churchy” boy. As a high-school senior he planned to study journalism at Northwestern University. Then he attended a religious retreat sponsored by his school and was inspired to become a Jesuit. Seeing that Miles had a gift for languages, the Jesuits sent him to Rome, where he perfected his Italian and Latin, and then to Israel, where he became fluent in Hebrew. (He also speaks French, German, and Spanish.) Returning to the States, he began work on his doctorate in Near Eastern languages at Harvard University, even as he began to question his devotion to Catholicism; he objected to some of the Church’s more conservative positions, including its opposition to contraception. After finishing his PhD in 1971, Miles left the order. “The Jesuits made me an intellectual,” he says, “and the intellectuals made me an ex-Jesuit.”
He received an academic appointment at Loyola University Chicago, a Catholic school, but was denied tenure a few years later for “confidential” reasons, possibly having to do with his outspoken support for abortion rights. He spent a year unemployed — a period he describes as the “deepest spiritual experience” of his life — before moving to New York City to work in the publishing industry. He eventually ended up at the Los Angeles Times, where he edited the newspaper’s weekly book-review section and was later appointed to its editorial board. He also, after a decade of semi-atheism and semi-Buddhism, returned to Christianity as an Episcopalian.
In 2014 Miles married his second wife, sold most of his possessions, and moved to one of the last surviving orange groves in Orange County, California. Currently a distinguished professor of English and religious studies at the University of California, Irvine, Miles calls himself a “classic late bloomer: Pulitzer at fifty-four, tenured at sixty-five.” His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.
I first met Miles in 2006, when I took a class he was teaching at Occidental College in Los Angeles. In the classroom he was intense and even intimidating, an old-school intellectual who took ideas and language seriously. He had white hair, fierce eyes, and a deliberate manner of speaking. When I met with him for this interview, Miles remained characteristically intense — “Let’s do this,” he said, cutting through my attempts at small talk — but also generous with his time. We spoke for hours about God and how religion remains relevant in the contemporary world.
Mowe: You write that religion can be a claim to special knowledge or it can be a “special acknowledgment of ignorance.” How is religion an “acknowledgment of ignorance”?
Miles: My journey through life has forced me to acknowledge ignorance as my constant companion. At key moments in my past I’ve made big decisions with limited knowledge.
In 1962, at the age of twenty, I took perpetual vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience when I joined the Society of Jesus, and I remained a member of the Jesuit order for ten years — my twenties almost to the day. I made my decision freely and gladly, without any element of coercion, and knowing a good deal about what Jesuit life was like, having spent two years in a novitiate before joining. And yet, looking back, I see that I didn’t understand then where I fit into the American religious mosaic, nor where I was in my own personal maturation. A decade after leaving the Jesuits, I made new vows — marriage vows this time — and went on to father a daughter and remain married for thirty years. At the end of that marriage I knew immensely more about who I had been at the time I’d wed than I had known on my wedding day.
I do not make or break commitments lightly, and the fact that these two commitments turned out not to last a lifetime does not, in my mind, mean that they were mistakes. The years that followed each impoverished but also enriched me. I still love and respect both the Society of Jesus and my first wife. Nonetheless these experiences and others have left me keenly aware that perfect rationality is beyond us. Even the most reasonable among us must close the gap between indecision and decision, paralysis and action, not with knowledge but with something else. I expect the darkness of ignorance to continue to surround me until my dying day. In a sense, that darkness is my enlightenment.
Mowe: What do you mean?
Miles: By embracing ignorance I achieve a kind of patience with the “crazy” ideas people rely on to help them solve problems. I welcome religion under that umbrella. In other words, if we’re making decisions not on the basis of perfect knowledge but on the basis of something else, then why not religion? The religious are no crazier than people who turn to some other source of strength or guidance under the same circumstances. We’re all stuck with ignorance as we move from quandary to quandary. What I want to do is make a case for religion as one of the means to cope with this irremediable human condition. Atheists cope in other ways, but they don’t do it by pure knowledge.
Mowe: What are some of the ways you cope?
Miles: As an Episcopalian I sing in my congregation’s choir. The experience of coordinating my breathing and intonation with those of twenty other people for several hours each week assists me in my life.
I would say that human company and harmony are among the benefits of belonging to a religion. In our culture solo methods of coping, religious or not, seem to be the default. The French thinker Simone Weil once said that the terminal religious condition of modernity was for each person to become the lone member of his or her own sect.
Mowe: Recent Pew Research Center studies indicate that young people are turning away from religion.
Miles: Yes, I’ve seen those numbers. Some claim that religion has faded because its dogma is contradicted by science, but I think it pays to look at the social pressures involved. In his book Bowling Alone Robert Putnam observes that people — in my opinion, young people especially — are no longer associating with others in secular areas either. They don’t join political parties. They don’t join clubs. They don’t vote. Whenever I ask my students about a given election, they rarely know that there is one going on. The last Los Angeles municipal election had a turnout of around 10 percent.
Americans are retreating into isolation — or perhaps isolation plus entertainment — and it affects not just our religious lives but our cultural and political lives, too. There are still certain events that bring people together — the Academy Awards and the Super Bowl attract large audiences — but they don’t involve any kind of commitment. They don’t affect our lives in any significant way. It’s easy in our culture simply to live alone with our spiritual desires, our sexual desires, our economic desires.
Mowe: Don’t many people come to religion later in life, though?
Miles: The standard pattern for many years was that, during their college years, Americans would drift away from whatever religious background they had, but, after they graduated and entered the workforce — and especially after they married and had children — they would either return to their prior religious affiliation or form a new one. But people aren’t doing that as much anymore. The age at which one is ready to settle down, assume responsibilities, and form affiliations with a church, political party, or civic organization — or just subscribe to the local newspaper — has gotten older.
Even if some young people actually yearn to form serious, lasting affiliations, American society discourages it. The other day, I was talking to a member of my church who’d been hired by Southern California Edison to do some computer work. His employers specifically told him he was on a six-month contract that might or might not be renewed. The contract could conceivably lead to a permanent position, but they made no promises. So of course, even as he works that job, he has to be looking for another. He might even break his contract and leave early, because there’s no commitment on either side.
That kind of loose relationship is a fragmenting force in American life. It encourages people to depend mostly on themselves and always be ready to move on. It’s hard to be an economic freelancer, and equally hard to be a religious freelancer.
Mowe: Is it possible that community is overrated and that being a freelancer is rewarding in other ways? Some people are isolated for reasons other than economic concerns: they’re wealthy elites who isolate themselves by choice.
Miles: I am undoubtedly expressing my own preference here, but I think life is lived more successfully and more harmoniously when it is lived collectively, with stable commitments. That goes for religious life as well as economic life. Solitude is wonderful and can refresh us as almost nothing else can. And yet solitude is best when it alternates with human interaction.
In his book The American Religion Harold Bloom sees self-reliance — the title of his hero Ralph Waldo Emerson’s most famous essay — as the distinctive element in American Christianity. I would agree; and as an American, I, too, admire self-reliance in all realms. But I also see that, as a people, we are often guilty of exaggerating this virtue until we end up in a grim isolation. In his play No Exit Jean-Paul Sartre writes, “Hell is other people” — as if to say, “Spare me those fools. I can’t stand them.” The sentiment is commonly taken to be Sartre’s, but I believe it’s intended to challenge or even mock the arrogant self-sufficiency or elevated sensitivity of the character who delivers the line. Mingling with other people, we inevitably encounter those we regard as ignorant or boorish, but even they can disrupt our certainties.
When I hear a sermon in church, I often think that I would prefer the preacher to have focused on a different aspect of the Scripture, yet I learn more from sermons that diverge from my preference. I am made to ponder topics that in the privacy of my mind would simply never have come up.
Mowe: By signing up for an organized faith, am I not rejecting other religious truths?
Miles: Well, any choice limits us. You can’t practice religion in general; you have to practice one religion. You can’t marry all women or all men; you have to marry one person. OK, you might be a bigamist, but there are limits. And where there are limits, there are choices.
Lately, as I drive, I’ve been listening to an audio recording of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel The Beautiful and Damned. It’s about a young man named Anthony Patch, who is the heir apparent to his grandfather’s fortune. The elder Patch provides young Anthony with an enviable living: He has a servant who comes and makes his breakfast. He eats lunch and dinner at the Ritz every day. He fiddles with writing here and there but never tries to discover whether he has a literary gift. Because his material needs are met, he is free to fritter away most of his time. He can’t do anything because everything attracts him a little bit, but not enough for him to sacrifice in order to commit to it.
Mowe: Do you dislike when people say they’re “spiritual but not religious”?
Miles: I think you’re asking whether I see, in the phrase “spiritual but not religious,” a religious dilettantism to mirror Anthony’s literary dilettantism. I certainly honor those who feel a genuine spiritual desire mingled with honest hesitation, but if you don’t join a team, you’ll never get into a real game.
In this country we assume that religion is a matter of the heart, of inwardness, of how I live rather than of how we live. Religious traditions throughout history have had much to say about how we should live, but now there is this other, Western, understanding that the individual is primary. We can always opt out, become “spiritual but not religious,” disaffiliate, go our own way and find our own truth. The analogue to this in the Old Testament — and the New, for that matter — is what rabbi and scholar Moshe Greenberg describes in his book Biblical Prose Prayer. Greenberg highlights for discussion all those moments in the Hebrew Bible, and there are many, when a lone individual addresses God directly or hears God speaking to him or her. So I suppose there is a biblical foundation even for the cultural habit of dispensing with organized religion.
Even the most reasonable among us must close the gap between indecision and decision, paralysis and action, not with knowledge but with something else. I expect the darkness of ignorance to continue to surround me until my dying day. In a sense, that darkness is my enlightenment.
Mowe: Would you ever say of yourself that you are spiritual but not religious?
Miles: No. I am religious but carnal.
Mowe: Is that why you left the Jesuit order?
Miles: People always ask, “Why did you leave?” For many years I offered thoughtful, sensitive responses to that question, but eventually I grew impatient and started to say, “Why the hell do you think I left? I wanted to get laid. I wanted to make a buck. I wanted to be my own boss. Does any of this surprise you?” It had begun to occur to me that my lapse into the default American existence ought not to require much explanation. What requires explanation is my joining the Jesuits and thus embracing a life of chastity, poverty, and obedience — that is, no sexual intercourse with anybody (not even masturbation, if it matters), no private property or personal income, and a career dedicated to the good of the order.
Mowe: OK, then, why did you join the Jesuits?
Miles: Because I believed I could make no greater contribution to humankind than to dedicate my life to the preservation and propagation of Catholic Christianity. I left the order, and later the Roman Catholic Church, because I’d begun to appreciate other religions’ contributions to the world. For example, I saw the value in the various forms of governance within American Protestant churches. The word fellowship, which is dear to almost every strand of American Protestantism, had once made me cringe. I did not want to be cuddled up under some velvet blanket of fellowship. But then I began to perceive the wisdom in it.
I moved beyond the content-heavy meditation I had practiced as a young Jesuit and into an empty meditation that led to an awareness that seemed large and airy and liberating. I’d received only slight instruction from a young American follower of a Hindu guru, but it took immediately. It was as if I had been ready for such a move without knowing it.
I felt drawn to Judaism because of the intellectual vitality of many Jews I met, and the farther I progressed in American intellectual life, the more Jews I got to know. As a Christian I celebrated universality — the Gospel is for everyone — but I came to appreciate the power of a kind of tribal identity: its beauty, durability, and richness.
All that aside, I owe a lot to the Jesuits. They dislodged me from the default position of American culture, in which each individual is a customer evaluating all offerings as products to be acquired or not. In fact, I grew disgruntled with the question “Why did you leave?” in part because I sensed in it the questioner’s desire to be reassured that he or she had not missed out on a good deal.
Mowe: I assume the Jesuits also helped foster your deep interest in the Bible, which led you to explore the character of God from a literary perspective in God: A Biography. Why did you decide to take a literary approach to God?
Miles: In my Jesuit high school the subject I enjoyed most was literature. Poetry and fiction spoke to me. I later went to Harvard University, where the dominant scholarly approach to the Bible was the “historical-critical method.” I found this method tone-deaf from a literary perspective. It had little to say about the poetry of the Psalms, for example. It didn’t talk about the character of Moses or Abraham or the most challenging character of all, Jesus. And with regard to God, it was atheistic. I don’t mean that my professors were nonbelievers themselves, but they wouldn’t invoke divine intervention, for example, to explain why one nation defeated another on the battlefield. They looked for secular, material explanations for everything in the Bible.
In the Anchor Bible Dictionary — an enormous, six-volume reference work covering the Old and New Testaments — there is no entry on God. If you look up “God,” you find “God, names of,” with cross-references to El Shaddai, the Lord, Yahweh, and so forth. And when you look up those entries, you find linguistic commentaries and brief references to verses in the Bible where these names are used, but you don’t find anything about what God is like. So there was a vacuum there, and I stepped into it.
As religion scholar Wilfred Cantwell Smith says, “Unbelievers talk about religion. Believers talk about God.” I wanted to talk about God because I loved literature, and God was clearly the main character here. And even if God does not exist, so what? Literature is filled with characters who do not exist. Try taking Zeus out of Homer’s Iliad. You have a weaker poem as a consequence. To my mind, current Bible scholarship was like Hamlet without the prince. So I put the prince back in Hamlet. I put God back in the Bible, allowing the work to function as it was intended to function.
The religious are no crazier than people who turn to some other source of strength or guidance under the same circumstances. We’re all stuck with ignorance as we move from quandary to quandary. What I want to do is make a case for religion as one of the means to cope with this irremediable human condition.
Mowe: Were you the first person to do this?
Miles: I don’t claim that I was the first to take a literary approach to Scripture. Bible-as-literature courses have been around for decades. Mine was just the latest variant. What I think I did differently was to take a literary approach to the character of God.
My theory was that the Christian Bible is about the great transformation of the Hebrew deity Yahweh, the Divine Warrior, into Jesus, the Divine Pacifist. God is not loving from the start but learns to love along the way. He does not create human beings as an act of love. The only hint of a motive comes when he says, “Let us make man in our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). Evidently he wants a likeness of himself. But does this imply love for the creature about to be created? It might as easily imply curiosity. Early on, the word love comes up as something God requires of his chosen people, meaning supreme, unquestioning loyalty. It’s not until later in the Bible that God expresses a fatherly or marital love for the Jewish people.
Mowe: Was there any backlash to the book?
Miles: I wouldn’t say so. The conservative Christians or Jews who might have objected generally don’t read academic scholarship. Professors of literature received the book warmly. The reaction from the Bible scholars was “Well, that’s nice. It’s not what we do, but if he wants to, OK.” Feminist biblical scholar Phyllis Trible, who reviewed the book in The New York Times, gave me credit for having done something original, though she had mixed feelings about how I had done it.
Mowe: You said a moment ago that Jesus is the most challenging character of all. Why?
Miles: On the one hand, he is the continuation of God; on the other hand, he seems unlike God. As my French editor put it, “He doesn’t take after his father.” Yahweh is a warrior. He brings the Israelites out of Egypt “with mighty hand and outstretched arm.” He takes Canaan from the Canaanites and gives it to the Israelites, never mind the slaughter that this entails. But Jesus, who is God in human form, is a pacifist who goes without protest to his own execution. How do you make literary sense of that?
Mowe: You propose that God’s “multiple personalities” go back to the leap from polytheism to monotheism, when the many gods of the past had to be represented in one entity. Does that include goddesses?
Miles: Yes, it does. There is archaeological evidence that Yahweh once had a consort called Asherah. She was a holdover from the mythology of Canaan, the land that the Israelites had conquered, and in places of worship she was represented by a wooden pole. There is nothing in the Bible about a consort goddess, of course, but there are many mentions of an “Asherah pole” among the furnishings in temples. The purpose of the pole is somewhat mysterious: It isn’t a tent pole. It doesn’t hold anything up. It doesn’t seem to have a function at all. It is vestigial evidence of a goddess who used to be worshiped but isn’t any longer. Where did she go? Her personality was absorbed into that of her husband, Yahweh. And so we sometimes find poetic language speaking of God as a “mother,” and even on occasion as the “wife” of the people of Israel.
Mowe: In God: A Biography you write, “Just as an immigrant returning after many years to the land of his birth may see his own face in the faces of strangers, so the modern, Western, secular reader may feel a tremor of self-recognition in the presence of the ancient protagonist of the Bible.” What will he or she see that is familiar?
Miles: What makes God a powerful character is his inner turmoil. He has the capacity for great tenderness, as in the Book of Hosea, where he compares himself to a wronged husband who loves his wife so much that he adopts and cares for the children she has had by another man. But Yahweh also has the capacity for great wrath and vindictiveness, as when, in the First Book of Samuel, he requires the extermination of the Amalekites down to the last man, woman, and suckling babe. The reader never knows which side of God’s character will be dominant.
Mowe: What’s your favorite story from the Bible?
Miles: In John, chapter 13, Jesus, on the eve of his execution, performs a humble service for his disciples: He washes their dirty feet. Foot-washing is a humble occupation even now; the women who give pedicures rank pretty low in our social hierarchy. Afterward Jesus says, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you should wash each other’s feet.” To me this means that when I can be of service, I should try to be of service, and I should try to perform that service humbly.
Mowe: How do you try to be of service?
Miles: There are plenty of humble chores that I do leave to other people, but I try to be as willing to serve as to be served. This weekend my church in Santa Ana is having a rummage sale whose proceeds will go to a Christian medical mission in rural Nicaragua. Earlier today, in a back corner of our garage, I found a never-opened set of tire chains, covered in dust. I carefully washed and polished the heavy plastic container and brought the chains to church for the sale before returning home to attend to “higher” duties such as writing a letter in support of a movement or giving a journalist advice. I could say that it is not for me to be washing tire chains for sale, but when I start to think that way, I remember Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.
Mowe: Let’s get back to the jump from polytheism to monotheism. Was that an inevitable change in the evolution of religion?
Miles: No, there are polytheistic religions that survive to this day. Hinduism is, in my judgment — I know some Hindus object to this — effectively polytheistic. Some Hindus resolve the multiplicity of gods into the unity of Brahman, the world soul, but that is a monotheism that lives alongside polytheism. Hindus are free to emphasize unity or to revel in the multiplicity.
In the West there’s no doubt that the direction of history has been from polytheism to monotheism and finally monism — a belief not just in one god but in a universal unity, perhaps of the sort that physics is hoping to find in a theory of everything. Is everything energy? Is it dark energy? What is the ultimate component? That’s what is so wonderful and so frustrating about science: the questions never come to an end.
Mowe: I’ll want to come back to the relationship between science and religion later, but for now let’s stick to monotheism. Are monotheistic religions more hostile to other religions?
Miles: That’s a common assertion, but I don’t think the evidence supports that view. In Sri Lanka, for example, the conflict between the Hindu Tamils and the Buddhist Sinhalese has involved truck bombs and torture and killings. Both faiths might be described as at least somewhat polytheistic. Buddhism, with its many bodhisattvas who help others achieve enlightenment, is a kind of polytheism: there can always be another bodhisattva, in the same way that there can always be another Hindu god. And yet these two sides in Sri Lanka fought one another with a bloody ferocity equal to any that monotheism has ever sparked.
The Aztec religion was polytheistic, and it was murderously hostile toward the subordinate peoples of the Aztec Empire. I think cruelty and violence are rooted not in monotheism but in human nature.
Mowe: Gore Vidal said, “The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism.” What would you say to that?
Miles: I would say that atheistic totalitarianism, such as appeared in the Soviet Union and in China under Mao in the 1950s, was responsible for some of the greatest evils of the twentieth century. The Soviet regime killed millions of its own people. The terrible famine in the Ukraine and the numbers who died in the gulag match anything that, say, the Spanish Inquisition ever achieved, all without the assistance of religion. Mao, too, slew millions by inducing famine. Under both regimes citizens were not permitted to promote any religion. The ruling parties did not attempt to exterminate every believer, but they definitely privileged atheism and persecuted religious leaders.
Mowe: I’ve spoken to many people who believe that Islam is more violent than other faiths. In a recent Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross you said, “Islam needn’t be inherently violent because something violent is in its scripture. Everything depends on what an individual Muslim does with the received text.”
Miles: The Islamist perpetrators of violence choose to see a license for that violence in their scriptures, but other Muslims read the same scriptures and do not find such license or do not act on it. Christians and Jews have scriptures that might provide comparable license. In Exodus, Yahweh wrecks the ecology of Egypt and slaughters the firstborn males of a country to make a point. It doesn’t mean Christians and Jews should do the same.
The interpretation of scripture and how it could or should be read is relevant to matters of major geopolitical importance, but international diplomacy generally makes no room for such discussions.
Mowe: As editor of the Norton anthology, you had to decide what religions to include. How did you go about that?
Miles: After some debate about how we define religion, we decided to anthologize major, living, international religions, thus eliminating from this particular book traditions predominantly confined to a country or region, such as Shinto. The hugely important Yoruba tradition is not included because it has no set of generally recognized and employed texts. Ancient but dead religions, such as that of Homeric Greece, are also absent. Minor modern religious movements of all sorts are excluded. We chose to regard Confucianism as a philosophy of governance and aristocratic conduct rather than as a religion. So the final, not especially controversial result was that we anthologized Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Mowe: In your introduction you mention that, in a way, the early Christians invented the modern idea of religious versus secular. Can you say more about this?
Miles: When the movement that became Christianity arose in first-century Palestine, the dissident founders took certain Jewish beliefs — those that we would now call “religious” — and separated them from the larger Jewish way of life. These were the beliefs that had to do with God, the expectation of a messiah, the notion that God could send prophets to convey his wishes, the ideas of sin and forgiveness, and so on. Christianity was the first instance of such a separation between religious belief and the rest of a culture.
This separation also implied the possibility of conversion to a faith. The Roman converts to early Christianity were invited to replace their polytheistic Roman religion with the Christian religion while continuing to regard themselves as authentically Roman. This identity revision had to be preceded by some sense that religion existed apart from one’s nationality or culture.
The concept of religious conversion was crucial to the notion of a world religion. The Jewish founders of Christianity came to believe not just that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah but also that he wanted his message to reach the entire world. As they acted on this belief, they created something unprecedented: a faith-based, nongovernmental organization open to all, without regard to nationality, class, or gender.
Historically the Jews had never sought to convert anyone to their religion. They believed that theirs was the only God, yet their religion was, for the most part, exclusively theirs. The same went for the Romans. Ritual deference to the Roman gods was required of imperial subjects, but the Romans clearly expected other religions to continue to exist under Roman rule. In these regards Christianity was different, even aggressively different. It opened the door to missionary ambitions and, in our day, the notion of a religious free market in which anyone may sell or buy a faith to or from anyone else.
Mowe: You’ve written that, in your thirties, after you left the Jesuit order, you were “thrilled” by something British existentialist Bertrand Russell wrote. He said that all life is an accident of atoms and that nothing — not even the sum total of all human achievement — can escape extinction. Therefore our philosophy can be built “only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair.” Why did that line thrill you?
Miles: It seemed to let me off every hook. I no longer needed to work to elect one candidate rather than another, or to pass one law rather than another. Terrestrial life itself was doomed to extinction. Victories or defeats along the way were trivial. Despair was the answer to all questions. It became my religion. I was, as it were, a devout despairer. But then life went on anyway, and I lost my Russellian faith.
Any thrill, emotional or physical, is necessarily brief. Think of sexual orgasm or of the exquisite finale of a musical masterpiece. A change can occur inside us in such a thrilling moment, but time can undo it, so it’s rarely sustained.
The thrill that ushered me into the Jesuits as a young man was a sermon by an eloquent priest who quoted a Jesuit saint: Quid hoc ad aeternitatem? “What is this” — this fame, this fortune, this achievement, this romance, this adventure, this passion, all that lay terrifyingly and alluringly ahead for me at that age — “to eternity,” the great unnamable mystery that transcends all time and space? That question touched me at the same depth that Russell’s proclamation would years later. In each case the change lasted a long while but ultimately faded.
Mowe: What pulled you away from the existentialists?
Miles: I decided that their position was quite arbitrary and saw that, by taking it, I had deprived myself of much that had once brightened my life: thoughtful and kind friends at church, wonderful sacred music, and so forth. In a secular American life colored by despair, you’re free not to give a damn about anybody else, to repel them. That armor of repulsion began to strike me as itself repellent, and the position I had taken as more than a little silly.
Mowe: Can you talk about the relationship between science and religion?
Miles: The most common, but least interesting, way to address that relationship is to look at the cosmology embedded in a religious tradition and note that scientific cosmology disagrees with it. For a humanist like E.O. Wilson or an atheist like Richard Dawkins, this is the end of the matter: science has evidence to back up its claims; religion does not. But this is not the end of the matter for any religion that hangs loose from whatever cosmology we find in its scriptures. Some traditions of Buddhism, for example, have elaborate cosmologies of heavens and hells and demons and gods, but many modern practitioners of Buddhism — particularly here in the West — have barely heard a word about these cosmologies. Similarly, liberal Christians easily accept the scientific consensus about evolution but find reason to read Genesis anyway.
The more interesting way to engage the relationship between science and religion is to accept that religion has come into existence as a part of human evolution and then to ask whether it is now or ever was adaptive — that is, if religion has served the reproductive success of the species. If so, how? If not, why has religion survived anyway? Is it perhaps a side effect of some other behavior that is adaptive? For example, the male peacock’s tail is clearly cumbersome, eye-catching for predators, and costly in the nutrition that the peacock must consume to maintain it, but it pays off for the peacock because it attracts peahens. It’s worth considering that, for whatever reason, the most secular societies in the world produce fewer children. Fertility, by contrast, correlates with religiosity.
Here is another question for science to address: Did intelligence — in the form of the anatomically modern human brain — evolve before religion, such that there were prehistoric societies with no religion? Or did religiosity and intelligence emerge simultaneously? I find that interesting to ponder.
Mowe: What are the limitations of science?
Miles: They are the same as the limitations of the human mind. We are a species of ape, which might chasten any belief that our simian mental apparatus is equal to understanding all reality. Science is subject to the same evolutionary critique as religion. It is an evolved form of behavior in our species, but it may also be hastening our own end by assisting in the elimination of our habitat. Of course, scientists are the ones who have alerted us to our self-destructive capacity. Meanwhile, knowing as little as we do, ignorant of as much as we are ignorant of, we have to live one way or another. That’s where religion or some equivalent comes in.
Religion for me has moved from a position of rivalry with science to one of companionship with art and play. I can attend a religious service in which people are burning incense and ringing bells and marching about in funny-looking dress and think to myself, This is ridiculous! But then, all play is ridiculous.
Mowe: You mentioned Richard Dawkins, a prominent member of the “new atheists.” What do you think of him?
Miles: I like him best when he speaks of science rather than of religion. The Selfish Gene is a compelling book, though what I find compelling about it isn’t related to religion. Dawkins helped me understand my own sex drive, which seemed at the time I read the book to have little to do with my well-being. Why was I so strongly attracted to people who were not going to be good companions for life, other than the fact that they were there, and I was physically ready? Dawkins explained for me that my sexual desires had little to do with my own intentions for my future: My penis didn’t care whether I lived or died. Its only agenda was to get my seed into as many women as possible. Dawkins taught me to view myself as just the delivery boy for my selfish genes. This information solved no daily problems for me, but I found it calming. It’s a pity that so gifted a science writer should have veered into a kind of cul-de-sac within religious studies.
Mowe: Have your personal views on religion changed as you’ve gotten older?
Miles: In my old age I’ve gone from attending to what religion claims to know to focusing on how religion copes with unknowing. Sometimes it does this with faith. Other times it engages in practices — dance, song, pilgrimage, almsgiving, confession — that carry our lives forward. This change has freed me to be both a wholehearted practitioner of my own religion and a genuinely fascinated observer of others without any sense that, in so doing, I am flying in the face of scientific fact. If I were a physicist, I could believe just as I now do.
Religion for me has moved from a position of rivalry with science to one of companionship with art and play. I can attend a religious service in which people are burning incense and ringing bells and marching about in funny-looking dress and think to myself, This is ridiculous! But then, all play is ridiculous. Going to a Broadway musical and spending $250 to sit in a too-small seat for two hours and watch people pretend to be someone else is ridiculous — and indispensable. We don’t outgrow art. The same goes for religion.
Mowe: Have you found closure through religion?
Miles: As we discussed at the start of our conversation, human ignorance is invincible. One dazzling discovery leads to another, but no matter how much we learn, questions always remain. This means there is no closure now and never will be — not through science nor anything else that human beings can do with their minds. I returned to the practice of religion the moment I gave up hope for any true closure through science. Religious practice gives me a type of closure, not by answering my questions but by enriching a life in which some questions remain unanswered. If I die feeling that I have come to the end of a kind of game, I won’t feel cheated but rather confirmed. Maybe.
Though I have surrendered all hope of intellectual closure, the dream of finding some sort of ultimate truth does seem to live on in my imagination. The dream seems independent of any religious expression, but its rare visits sometimes come in moments that are conventionally religious. In my church we sing the eighteenth-century Charles Wesley hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling” two or three times a year. The third verse ends with the quatrain:
Changed from glory into glory,
Till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee,
Lost in wonder, love, and praise.
When we come to those lines, I choke up every time. Why? I cannot easily say. I entertain no hope of ever enacting such a scene in a literal heaven; the lyric captures the Christian myth in a particularly outlandish moment. Intellectually I can engage it only as some kind of metaphor. But the emotion that I feel is spontaneous and arises prior to any metaphorical interpretation.
Closure? It doesn’t seem like it to me. Rather than closure, what comes over me during that hymn is more like an opening.