On the Call to Goodness


(NEPAL Kathmandu) Burnt candle offerings at one of the city's innumerable shrines. (Photo taken by the author.)

(NEPAL Kathmandu) Burnt candle offerings at one of the city’s innumerable shrines. (Photo taken by the author.)

A third of December has gone, most of it spent on the voracious consumption of literature on the evolution and history of religion.

(Recommended reads: Matthew Alper’s The “God” Part of the Brain; Karen Armstrong’s A History of God: The 4,000 Year Quest of Judaism, Christianity and Islam; Karen Armstrong’s The Battle for God: Fundamentalism in Judaism, Christianity and Islam; Karen Armstrong’s The Bible: A Biography; Karen Armstrong’s The Great Transformation: The Beginning of Our Religious Traditions; Daniel Dennett’s Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon; Jack Miles’ God: A Biography; Steve Taylor’s The Fall; Robert Winston’s The Story of God; and Robert Wright’s The Evolution of God. There are many, many others, but I’ll start my recommendations with these.)

(One day, when I’ve grown up, I will pursue a doctorate on comparative religion. Until then, I’ll happily peddle what actual, grown-up doctorate holders have to say about the subject.)

Anyway, what has all the reading amounted to? What conclusions have I drawn from everything that I’ve read so far?

Very simply: the only worthwhile pursuit to be made in life is to be good—to be compassionate, to be generous, to be kind. Nothing else will exercise us as much (exercise in the various senses of demand, bewilder, frustrate, perplex); yet nothing else will fulfill us as much either.

Of course, you don’t have to take my word for it. You can: (1) read all the literature yourself; and (2) try pursuing other things to see if they make you happy (i.e., money, fame, pleasure, success, etc.). I’ve done as much of (1) as I can (and will continue doing so simply because I’m obstinate that way), and I’ve done enough of (2) (and might continue doing so simply because I’m obtuse that way). But right now, at this strangely quiet and reflective juncture of my life, I really really get it—how the transcendentals of the good, the true and the beautiful coincide.

So what is 2013 beginning to look like for me?

Very simply: the pursuit of being good.

Here’s to a whole new year then of being bewildered, frustrated and perplexed—and hopefully, just hopefully, happy.

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8 thoughts on “On the Call to Goodness

  1. Justine says:

    My book club is reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin which promptly led me to download Eckhart Tolle’s A New Earth. I’m on a reading spree too. Just finished Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell and The Silver Linings Playbook by Matthew Quick. 🙂

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    • Eileen says:

      Happiness literature! On that front, I HIGHLY recommend Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness, Matthieu Ricard’s Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life’s Most Important Skill, Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche’s The Joy of Living, and on a slightly tangential note, Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less. These are slightly, er, geekier reads since they draw a lot on psychology, sociology and neuroscience, but that’s also precisely their appeal. 😀

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  2. Chris says:

    Hey! I just discovered this blog. I’ve been going through many of your posts for the last 15 minutes. Apologies for sounding creepy, but I’ve enjoyed the content and your personality quite a bit. I particularly liked your post on the subject of idolatry—I thought it was spot on. I was wondering, with your interest in comparative religion, are you familiar with the Perennialist School, particularly with the writings of Frithjof Schuon and Ananda Coomaraswamy?

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    • Eileen says:

      Gasp! A fellow enthusiast! Hello! I’d never heard of the Perennialist School until you mentioned it, but since you did, well, I couldn’t help looking it up briefly. Any reason in particular you brought this school of thought up? 🙂

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  3. Chris says:

    Hmm. I suppose, based on your writings, I’m inclined to think that the Perennial Philosophy (also known as the Primordial Tradition) will resonate with you. For many years, I was one of those people who probably would have identified themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. This group is by no means a homogenuous group; If there is a common feature at all, one of those characteristics would be a rejection (or an antagonism) to the traditional understanding of the monotheistic faiths, particularly to dogma and to religious (spiritual) exclusivism. Creeds and the principle of orthodoxy just doesn’t seem to sit well with postmodernity. So many folks today regard organized religion as a kind of “mythic membership” and an “unsophisticated” relic of the pre-scientific past.

    It seems to me that The Perennialist School (or the Traditionalist School) has a unique and penetrating take on the “problem” of religious plurality without falling prey to either relativism or syncretism. I certainly can’t say that the Traditionalist position is not beyond criticism, but I think that the defenders of this perspective might be of some interest to you.

    Kind Regards,
    Vincit Omnia Veritas

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    • Eileen says:

      It’s interesting that you mention the distinction between religiosity and spirituality. Most people instinctively get the difference, but science appears to have provided evidence that the difference lies in our neurophysiology. All human beings are endowed with linguistic, musical and mathematical capacities for instance—with the degrees of these abilities represented by a bell curve—the same supposedly holds for our religious AND spiritual capacities. And because they’re distinct capacities, someone who’s remarkably religious may never experience a moment of transcendence, while someone who experiences such moments very frequently may not be the slightest bit religious. I’ve got lots more to say in response to your comment, but I’ve got to dash off so I’ll pen those thoughts down later. 😀

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      • Chris says:

        Hi Eileen! Gratitude for the speedy response. In the simplest terms, it would seem that religion is generally understood as a proposition or belief about ultimate reality whereas spirituality is a direct experience of ultimate reality. The Perennialist School distinguishes between the exoteric and esoteric dimensions of the religion/spirituality “duality.” Their central thesis is that there is a transcendent unity of religions—that religious dogmas are certainly NOT the same, but do in fact have common ground as they draw closer to the Absolute.

        To my lights, “spirituality” isn’t genuinely spiritual if it isn’t religious and religion isn’t genuinely “religious” if it isn’t spiritual. The “formless” without form can be too willy nilly and “form” without the formless can be too cold and calcified. To divorce the two is to be idolatrous.

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      • Eileen says:

        Apologies for the late reply this time. 😀 Very, very well said. Mysticism is a lovely example of the commonalities underlying religious/spiritual phenomena: mystics across religious traditions often describe their experiences in uncannily similar language (not surprisingly, they’re often viewed as heretics within their own traditions, underscoring the divide between prescribed belief and authentic experience). As for the idolatry that stems from divorcing religion and spirituality, well, we can insist on what we think is right—it doesn’t necessarily reflect what is (unfortunately) real in the world. 🙂

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