It is not answers that pull many people into the religious life, it is questions. The person who lives deeply and enduringly with, and within, a religion often finds that he is surrounded by ever more doubts as he goes on, not convictions. In an eloquent monk like Thomas Merton, the religious impulse is almost always fired by a kind of holy restlessness, as if each time the traveler ascends a peak, he sees nothing but the larger peaks that now confront him. “Our knowledge,” as Isaac Bashevis Singer put it, “is a little island in a great ocean of non-knowledge.” Religion is in that regard like that other affair of the spirit and the heart, marriage. I may know my partner inside out, her habits and her gestures, and yet the more I see of her, the more I have to acknowledge how much will always lie beyond my reckoning—and in that very space of unknowing, my hunger for a continuing relationship may be quickened.
This is not always what people want when they turn to the imagined solace and sustenance of religion. Many of us take shelter inside belief systems that lay down unequivocally what is and is not kosher, who’s with us and against us, a creed that is a fixed and even finished product. As James Carse puts it, in his typically quotable and suggestive way, belief systems depend on boundaries as much as the religious impulse (as he defines it) relies on horizons. A boundary is clear-cut, and (its makers sometimes hope) will never change; a horizon, depending on where you’re standing, alters every time you walk toward it.
A longtime director of the religious studies program at New York University, Carse is the author of five previous books, such as Breakfast at the Victory, which show him to be an engagingly witty spirit who can plunge into discussions of the unsayable and the mysterium with a striking gift for the memorable epigram and the fine distinction. True to the very ideas he speaks for in The Religious Case Against Belief, this does not always make him an authoritative, or even persuasive, writer; rather it turns him into a kind of agile provocateur, eager to prise us out of our set positions, to get us thinking, even perhaps to move us to form counterarguments of our own. A professor (emeritus now) who writes for the inquiring reader, he contrives to make the thrashing out of essential issues both urgent and enjoyable.
In his new book Carse builds upon a typically intriguing and contentious distinction between religion and belief—or what is really a subtler distinction between open-ended, tolerant inquiry and a doctrine that knows what it knows and is not keen to hear about anything else (implications for our current political situation and for the argument between liberalism and fundamentalism run beneath every sentence in the book, though Carse chooses not to bring many of them explicitly to the surface). “The act …