I came across an old book by Will Durant ,The Mansions of Philosophy (1929), with a lot of suggestions to shake up the world and straighten it out, that is, the world as he saw it between the World Wars. Durant was famous in his day for popularizing the study of philosophy, and his writing is never dull. One of the best parts is a dialogue section at the end of the book, where he imagines his wife, Ariel, entertaining a flock of philosophers, each with a different take on life. It’s like a Parisian salon of the 18th century–very polite, very witty, very thought-provoking. One passage of this lengthy section comes from the mouth of an apologist for theism who believes that the poetic spirit of men and women is the source of religion, and religion gives it right back to us. Religion beautifies life through the arts, through ceremonies, “It has lifted the routine events of human existence, from birth through marriage to death, to the level of sacraments, making these common things holy experiences…” (591). Religion “has changed the sordid tragedy of life into a poetic pilgrimage to an ennobled end.”
One of his interlocutors agrees and quotes J.C. Powys’ The Religion of a Sceptic: there are four stages of development of the understanding of religion: emotional belief, metaphysical belief, absolute disillusionment, aesthetic understanding. I think there is a lot to that. When we are children we accept what our parents tell us about God without thinking, but when the age of reason approaches, we begin to have doubts that can often turn into skepticism, then cynicism, then scorn for those who feel the need for religion. But then as time goes on, a different kind of thinking kicks in. We sense that God-shaped hole and need to fill it. We seem to want the ceremony, the ritual, the artistic or poetic aspect of life—not linked to deity-worship, perhaps, but simply to enrich our lives with beauty, or to salve the wounds that life inevitably inflicts on us from time to time. That’s what beauty can do: wash over us and make everything better, whether it’s music, a walk on the shore, a candlelight procession, a dance, or a sweet smile from a child. We sense that “poetic spirit” and it helps us get in touch with our more “noble” selves, our higher selves. This is a universal yearning in all men and women and recognizing this can bring us together no matter what our religion might be. This yearning itself becomes a sacrament when we stumble into those moments when we are overwhelmed by the beauty that life can afford.
Durant’s lengthy debate on the nature and value of religion ends with an appeal : “that religion and brotherhood ought to be one,” that Confucius, Buddha, Isaiah, Christ, Spinoza and Whitman are prophets of one faith. “If we can agree on what these men held in common, it is enough” (603).