Thursday, January 5, 2012

"Intelligence Squared"

I like intelligence. It's like playing with a dog -- frisking, bouncing, fetching, skidding on the kitchen linoleum, rolling over to have its belly scratched.

But there is a difference too between a dog and intelligence and that difference can be found in the prayer, "May I become the person my dog thinks I am." The dog has no agenda ... more often than not, intelligence does.

It was those agendas that intelligence can assert that led me, as much as anything, to an interest in spiritual life. The distances of intelligence were too cool, too unsparing, too self-involved. I grew up with intelligent parents and it was lonely. Spiritual life seemed to reach outside the limits and calculations of intelligence. I wasn't positively sure that this was the case -- I didn't just roll over and play dead for a loving god -- but I was willing to find out.

Forty years later I sometimes wonder what I have gotten from spiritual endeavor, what benchmark accomplishment or change I might point to with a relaxed certainty. I can never really nail it down and am very reluctant to try, but earlier today a Buddhist bulletin board mentioned a program called "Intelligence Squared," a series of civil debates by relatively intelligent people. The debate topic that caught my eye was "The World Would Be Better Off Without Religion." So I listened to the better part of it -- two men on each team, one side supporting the other opposing. It was ... intelligent, I guess.

Back and for the ping-pong ball flew. Religion was delusional and often cruel. Religion accounted for a good measure of the human charity around the world. Religion locked the mind down in ways that debilitated scientific inquiry and hence well-being. Religion set a standard that allowed people to reach for higher standards. Humanism made better sense. Humanism was too narrow. Etc.

The participants were all intelligent people and the debate was mostly civil. It was certainly more informative than, say, a Republican political 'debate.' But I ran out of steam towards the end. And I wondered why. Here were four intelligent people discussing a topic that interested me and had done for a number of years. But I wasn't very interested in what they were saying. I didn't feel superior or better informed ... I just wasn't interested because, well, my training seemed to have taken hold. I was glad there were intelligent people of their ilk and I was content not to be one of them, however long and intense my own interest in religion had been.

To be content in that way seemed to demarcate my own adventures. They were just my adventures, but I found them more convincing than the intelligence I was witnessing. No one was interested in discussion the separations that most religions posit -- man from god and the like. No one was interested in the quixotic nature of belief -- so helpful in the beginning, so debilitating in the end. I didn't mind that these guys didn't mention Buddhism during the time I watched, but it made me curious that they didn't seem to care very much that religious organizations depend on the experience of the individuals who espouse them ... and what those individuals experience is life blood.

It's OK. I love playing with the dog. I no longer fear him as once. I love to scratch his belly and laugh with his energetic antics. Somehow it's OK now to be intelligent and enjoy intelligence and not be afraid of it as once. I don't use it to intimidate or convince or keep life at bay. I like its play and I like its usefulness but I am not convinced by its agendas.

Maybe it's just age that has informed the scenery, but as I watched the debate, I felt lucky to have floundered around in Zen Buddhism, made the grotesque errors that I made, praised and blamed and sat with my knees on fire and my brain blazing insistently.

Spiritual life seemed to have gained a marker as I watched the show. But later, as now, when I try to depict that marker ... hell, I can't honestly find it. Spiritual life and agendas don't work well together. Agendas just don't work very well.

Good dog, intelligence!

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