[Edit: In response to this, Christian blogger The Alethiophile has read and reviewed one of my favourite humanist books. Do have a look.]
I often find it more rewarding to read books I disagree with than books I do agree with. It helps me to clarify and sharpen exactly what I believe. Testing our own beliefs is best done by putting them up against the best that our opponents have to offer, otherwise we may just be picking the low hanging fruit and remaining ignorant of the better arguments against us. If your faithlessness has only ever been pitted against the weakest arguments, how can you be sure that it will withstand the challenge from the far greater religious thinkers that exist? If you only ever read books you agree with, are you not just wasting your time?
My latest attempt at challenging my godlessness was to read The Inner Life, an abridged version of the works of Thomas à Kempis. This book is part of Penguin’s “Great Ideas” series, which I am slowly working my way through. Here is the book’s blurb:
The counsels of Thomas à Kempis have offered spiritual guidance to millions, with their eloquent reflections on the virtues of humility and the profound power of faith
This was enough to entice me and I read it over a few days, although at first I wondered if I would make it through. The opening few chapters seemed to be an essay on the virtue of ignorance. We are told that
The more complete and excellent your knowledge, the more severe will be God’s judgement on you, unless your life be the more holy.
I had to read these passages a few times and allow my anger to subside, before I was able to see a more meaningful underlying message.
A humble countryman is more pleasing to Him than a conceited intellectual who knows the course of the stars, but neglects his own soul
It is not the acquisition of knowledge that à Kempis discourages here, but the acquisition of knowledge as a substitute for improving one’s soul, or as I would say, trying to become the best person you can be. Of course, à Kempis believes that the best person you can be – the best soul you can have – is one that has absolute faith and trust in God above all else.
The Moral Iguanodon
There is wisdom in this book, but it is buried beneath so many layers of worshipful junk that by the time you unearth it, filtering out references to God, eternal life and Christ’s desires, all we are left with is a big pile of platitudes. There is a lot of work to do before meaningful wisdom can be formed out of them. So much work, I’d say, that you’d might as well have just started from scratch.
Thomas à Kempis has assembled his interpretation of scripture into a beast that, for him, resembles the good life.
Using the same bones we would today build a different beast.
The difference between à Kempis’ moral Iguanodon and our moral Iguanodon is that his is based on a sincere best guess and ours is based on all the knowledge that we have acquired since those best guesses. This sounds rather conceited but it is true. Despite the insistence of the devout, we do not need the idea of God to prop up morality or goodness. In the centuries since Thomas à Kempis wrote, we have learned a great deal about reality and developed many approaches to the problem of why we should bother trying to act virtuously.
There are good reasons why religion was seen as the keeper of morality, especially in a world where nobody knew any better. Today we do know better. God was a practical mechanism for compelling people to behave themselves but it was far from perfect. One could argue that we have taken the morality that religion protected for all those centuries and we have refined it so that it stands on its own two feet. Human morality no longer requires artificial support.
A child born in the 15th Century would not have had an alternative to the teachings of the church if they were interested the question of how to be the best person possible. Today there are many alternatives to the church. We no longer need bribery (eternal life) or threats (hell) to influence people’s behaviour. We can simply be taught well and allowed to be motivated by whatever suits us individually.
Do This. Just Do It.
I love a good discussion about religious faith. Some of its symbolism is helpful for visualising what it is that I do or don’t think. C.S. Lewis gets a tough time from his critics and though I don’t subscribe to any of his beliefs I must admit that I love the way he writes about his faith. I find it emotionally moving and aesthetically vivid. If I based my beliefs on imagery and emotion I would have been seduced by him years ago. Lewis at least tries to seduce you into sharing his belief. With Thomas à Kempis there is no such seduction. We must forsake the world because that is what he says God wants us to do. We must give ourselves entirely to God because it is what he says God wants us to do. Aside from the promise of eternal life, there is no attempt to entice the reader, only to compel them.
In this way the first part of this book is reminiscent of the Qur’an; a long list of commandments and assertions with little scope for people to use their free will. God wants this, so you must choose it. Having given you free will, the least you can do is obey His every wish. That is, the wishes that the church assures you are His wishes.
If the first part of the book seems Quranic, the later part of the book is Buddhist. We are repeatedly told that forsaking the material world and its temptations is the only way to achieve true wisdom; the right sort of wisdom. Buddhist scripture does not command you so much as let you know that this is the only way to reach Nirvana, should you want to pursue it. The Inner Life tells us that we simply must detach ourselves utterly from the world and our families for this is the only way we can clear enough space in our hearts to give Christ the love he demands.
In the chapter entitled “That our Peace Cannot Depend on Man” the Christ character says
You should be so mortified in your affection towards loved ones that, for your part, you would forego all human companionship. Man draws the nearer to God as he withdraws further from the consolations of the world. And the deeper he descends into himself and the lower he regards himself, the higher he ascends towards God.
A similar message is found in Buddhist Scripture
As a mountain peak is inaccessible, so is Nirvana inaccessible to all the passions. As no seeds can grow on a mountain peak, so the seeds of all the passions cannot grow in Nirvana. And finally as a mountain peak is free from all desire to please or displease, so is Nirvana.
-The questions of King Millinda 100 BCE
Much of the wisdom in the latter part of The Inner Life bears this similarity to Buddhist teachings, but with an added splash of compulsion. Buddhism encourages the pursuit of wisdom and sees detachment from the world as a step towards attaining it. The Christian message is one where the pursuit of wisdom is secondary to your obligations to Christ.
How You Should…
The titles of many chapters begin with “How to…” but after reading them I often wondered where the instructions were. There were no detailed descriptions of “How we should not believe all we hear” (chapter 45) or “How we should bless god in all trouble” (Chapter 29) It just says that we should.
Many people dislike being told what to do – just on principle; they won’t be preached to thank you very much. I don’t object to being told what I should do, because I am completely free to reject the advice. Anyone who says you should behave in a certain way must understand that in making such an assertion, they are very likely indeed to be told “no thanks” unless they bother to do us the courtesy of giving us reasons. In the Inner Life, the “should” statements are not backed up with anything except the interpreted desire of God.
Nature vs. Grace
One chapter I did enjoy (after the usual mental filtering-out of the supernatural stuff) was the one entitled “On the Contrary Workings of Nature and Grace”. I thought it captured beautifully what it is that is special about humans. We are animals and we emerged from nature, so we have inherited all the natural appetites that we needed in order to get this far. However, we also have consciousness, a sense of empathy and free will (or as much free will as it is possible to have anyway). This is what I interpret as “grace”. It is the human capacity for choosing to be wonderful in the face of our natural inclination to be not-so-wonderful. Humanity struggles to rise above its appetites and desires and this allows us to inch towards a more objectively fair world where our behaviour is not dictated by our natural impulses. We are able to weigh up the implications of decisions and choose options that might not immediately benefit us (or our genes) but from which a greater good can flow.
Thomas à Kempis couches all this in the pious terms of the devout but the wisdom is under there somewhere.
Nature works for her own interest, and estimates what profit she may derive from others. Grace does not consider what may be useful or convenient to herself, but only what may be to the good of many.
Indeed, it is almost as if this chapter was written by someone else, lacking as it does the otherwise ubiquitous authoritarian commandments.
If à Kempis’ religious description led to more people learning about what makes Homo sapiens special, then I am grateful to him. As I said before, such insight no longer needs the artificial support of religion.
Based on my reading of this abridged version of his works, they seem primarily to act as a buttress to the faith of the already-faithful. If your intuition is that the Christian God exists, then these prayers and consolations will support and justify that faith. If you do not believe in the Christian God, I see nothing in this book that would change your mind.