I am tuning in to midwinter, before it gets overlaid with festivity. Outside, I encounter skeletal trees and the dying back of the land. Inside, I am half inclined to hibernate. I am sleeping longer and more heavily at night. During waking hours, I want to pars everything down. I want to be simple and minimalist.
This mood includes me and ideas. I want to shut them down for a while. But before I do, one topic is holding my attention: agnosticism and its spiritual value. I feel nudged to write now and then leave my seed thoughts to germinate when 2017 gets under way.
Buddhist scholar Stephen Batchelor says, “the force of the term ‘agnosticism’ has been lost. It has come to mean: not to hold an opinion about the questions of life and death; to say ‘I don’t know’ when you really mean ‘I don’t want to know’” (1). He goes on to say that “for T.H. Huxley, who coined the term in 1869, agnosticism was as demanding as any moral, philosophical, or religious creed. Rather than a creed, though, he saw it as a method realized through the rigorous application of a single principle’. He expressed this principle positively as: ‘Follow your reason as far as it will take you’ and negatively as: ‘Do not pretend that conclusions are certain which are not demonstrated or demonstrable’. This principle runs through the Western tradition from Socrates … to the axioms of modern science. Huxley called it ‘the agnostic faith’”.
Batchelor characterizes early Buddhism as agnostic in this sense. “Buddha said the dharma was permeated by a single taste: freedom. He made no claims to uniqueness or divinity and did not have recourse to a term we would translate as ‘God’. …The dharma is not something to believe in but something to do.” In Batchelor’s account, Gautama Siddhartha was seeking to create an existential and therapeutic culture of awakening, refracted through the symbols, metaphors and images of the Gangetic basin in the sixth century B.C.E. Inevitably over time, the movement tended to lose its agnostic dimension and to become institutionalized as a religion. “The power of organized religion to provide sovereign states with a bulwark of moral legitimacy while simultaneously assuaging the desperate piety of the disempowered” was too politically useful to be ignored by rulers in the Buddhist influenced world.
Looking at Buddhism in the modern West, Batchelor says that while Buddhism’s establishment has long “tended to become reductively identified with its religious forms” today it is in the further danger of being reductively identified with its forms of meditation. The danger is the “loss of potential to become realized as a culture, an internally consistent set of values and practices that creatively animates all aspects of human life”.
I am not a Buddhist and do not share these specific concerns. And yet I sense something there to reflect on. Modern Druidry and Paganism, as coherent movements, are new. But they are no longer brand new. We do have institutions, and the beginnings of wider social recognition. We enter religious alliances like Interfaith. We intervene in political and other civil society environments. I feel increasingly that I want to apply the test of agnosticism, or something like it, both to my own practice and to any public identity that I might have. I will need to be sensitive and careful. My practice and view are grounded in feelings and intuition. I came to Druidry as a path of beauty and wonder, of nature and the senses, willing to embrace the joys and sorrows of embodied human life. I will not wield the sword of discrimination recklessly. My hope indeed is that a little mental housecleaning will refresh me, bringing a greater clarity and purpose.
I wonder what changes I might make in how I express myself. I wonder about re-assessing my previous work. I wonder what I might seek to develop and engage with in the future. An agenda for the coming year.
Stephen Batchelor Buddhism without beliefs: a contemporary guide to awakening London: Bloomsbury, 1997