Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Provisional Definitions for Religion and Science

Last time instead of directly answering questions about the nature of the relationship between religion and science, I suggested we distinguish between 'phenomenological categories' and 'forms of consciousness'. The point was to think through more carefully what we mean when we use the terms religion and science. Much of the time, we seem to fall into the habit of talking about them as if they were readily identifiable things, which are out there for everyone to see, if only people would open their eyes think carefully about what they are seeing. But the idea religion and science are somehow objective things, or, otherwise put, objective categories within which to group things sharing some common  feature, will only stand up to scrutiny for so long.

So I went on to argue religion and science might better to thought of as 'forms of consciousness', or ways of thinking about things. This second way of thinking about religion and science--as ways of thinking about things--has the advantage of being much more flexible in its application, and so also truer to our experience of the world. Take, as an example, the phenomenon of a falling object; say, someone who was pushed from the top floor of an apartment building. We can theorize about the motion of this object. The falling person accelerates as they plummet towards the ground. Perhaps we could, like Isaac Newton, wonder about the cause of the person's acceleration and formulate a gravitational theory stating objects near the earth's surface accelerate at a speed of 9.8 m/s2. Note we haven't yet confronted the moral question about whether pushing a person from the top floor of an apartment building is good or bad? The object is still the same falling object, but, in this initial analysis, we bracket out moral considerations.

We theorize about the nature of the object's motion, in fact, without any concern for the sort of object it is. Striving to attain 'scientific' objectivity, we discover gravity exerts a force equal to the mass of the object multiplied by 9.8m/s2 (F=ma), and does so irrespective of the nature of the falling object. Moral considerations, on the other hand, add a whole new set of interpretive problems. If I drop a small stone (or better yet, a feather) from the top floor of the apartment building, few people are likely to find my action morally reprehensible. Whereas if I push a person from the top floor, I am going to be brought up on charges of murder. What has changed? The object in question remain the same; but the ways of I thinking about the object has changed.

The difficulty is determining what exactly it is that changes. What sort of expectations do I bring to my thought of these falling objects, such that I indifferently calculate the acceleration of an object due to gravity one moment, and agonize over whether pushing a person off the top floor of a building was the right thing to do the next moment?

I propose religion and science, understood as 'forms of consciousness', represent different ways of measuring objects, including ourselves. Thinking about things might be described as an act of measuring things against other things: we distinguish things, relate things, dissect things, and put them back together, all in our heads. A 'scientific' way of thinking about things is characterized especially by physical measurement. The better our measurements, the better able are we to test a hypothesis about the physical nature of this or that physical phenomenon. Physical measurement require standardized systems of measurement be established so we can intelligibly communicate our findings to other people. A unit of measurement like meters has an agreed upon objective value, as do units for the measurement of time intervals. With much more precise equipment, we are able to calculate the force of gravity at the earth's surface to precisely 9.80665 m/s2.

At the heart of systems of religious belief, as I pointed out last time, are found roughly proximate sets of rules, or normative systems of moral measurement. Rather than measure the physical motion of objects, we judge the moral actions of persons. The first point to note is that we are not likely to judge the 'actions' of non-human objects as moral. (There is a measure of truth to the statement, 'Guns don't kill people; people kill people.') The second point to note is that the grounding of our moral judgment is not exclusively objective, but rather is grounded both objectively and subjectively. The objective component is that we most likely decide it is wrong to push a person from the top floor of an apartment building (unless there exist extenuating circumstances, like the person is armed and threatened my life). The subjective component provides the rationale for why this is the case. Namely, that it is wrong to push a person (where it is not wrong to drop a stone or feather) because the person is, in some sense, a being like myself--a being that is conscious of being what they are, that communicates, that has desires and intentions, very much like I do. Love your neighbour as yourself; do unto others as you would have them do to you; as well as other such statements to the same effect.

To summarize, religion and science can be thought of as ways of measuring things according to moral and physical standards, respectively. Scientific standards of measurement are grounded objectively, in some agreed upon standard units of measurement; whereas religious standards of measurement are grounded both objectively in the action which is judged and subjectively in the sort of being making the judgment. The difference between the two, of course, will make it much easier for scientists, in their capacity as scientists, to agree with each other than it will for believers, in their capacity as believers, to do the same. Which is typically what we find when we look at the history of religion and science.

A General Orientation to Religion and Science

Questions about 'the relationship between religion and science' are well known in the sphere of public intellectual discussion. How do the two relate to each other? Are they complementary or the combative? In other words, does religion (whatever that might be) fit well with science (whatever that might be), or are the two best kept at a arms length from each other?

Scratch the surface of the public discussion to uncover the perspective of leading scholars in the field of Religion and Sciences Studies and what you find is that much the conversation about how these two (for lack of a better term) things relate to each other. The classic text in the field is Ian J. Barbour's revised version of his Gifford Lecture series Religion in an Age of Science (1989-90), renamed Religion and Science: Historical and Contemporary Issues (1997). The first lecture on 'Ways of Relating Science and Religion', which became the first chapter of Part II in the revised book, is available on the Gifford Lectures website.

Barbour's analysis furnished several generations of scholars with the mental architecture to make sense of the material. The sorts of relationships between religion and science, depending on the place and time, Barbour found in the historical record generally fell into one of four categories: Conflict, Independence, Dialogue, and Integration. Either religion and science refused to play nice, they stood aloof from each other, they maintained amicable relations with each other while granting the each other a measure of autonomy, or they actively sought reconciliation with each other.

All this begs a question about what are exactly religion and science. The way Barbour's categories are set up, it sounds like religion and science are groups of people. And that is more or less true. In Barbour's usage, religion and science are 'phenomenological categories', or labels under which persons can group 'phenomena' that seem to share some feature in common. Hence certain sets of beliefs and practices held and carried out by different groups of people get characterized as either one or the other. The important point to note here is just how arbitrary the labels religion and science actually are. An interpretation of a obscure sacred text and a daily ritual of praying before dawn and initiatives Pope Francis' many initiatives to care for the poor somehow all fit into 'religion'. A scientific study published in an academic journal and laboratory equipment and Bill Nye the Science Guy are likewise slotted into 'science'.

Phenomenological categories are rough and ready descriptors. They have usefulness insofar as they help to classify historical and contemporary information. But there is also a real danger of forgetting categories like religion and science are nothing in themselves--quite literally: figments of our imagination--and are only useful applied to a human world, which they help make sense of.

To say the same thing in slightly different terms: Phenomenological categories help us objectify the world. They cut it up into digestible chunks. Their limitations, however, also need to be borne in mind. What we call religion and science are not objects per se, but ways human beings have thought about objects--objects like the sun, moon, and stars, animals, plants, and inanimate objects, and so on.

So when we confront questions about 'the relationship between religion and science', each of us needs to bear in mind we are not talking about actual things that are 'out there' like the sun and moon or rocks and trees or other people are 'out there', which we all can look at and comment on. Nor are they 'out there' in the historical sense that Galileo Galilee or Isaac Newton are 'out there'. Applying the categories becomes especially difficult the further back in human history one looks, as early scientists tended also to be believers in some religious creed or other. Rather: questions about the relationship between religion and science arise from a much deeper source: the problem of what it is to be consciousness of anything at all.

Bear with me. This is not as esoteric as it sounds. Human beings encounter consciousness in two distinct ways: immediately in ourselves (i.e.thinking) and mediately in the wider world (or communicating, in conversations or by interacting with other persons, by reading books, watching television, surfing the internet). We also may encounter glimmers of consciousness in so-called 'higher' mammals like dolphins, elephants, and baboons, or we may see it mimicked by artificial intelligences. On the other hand, we do not think of water or rocks as being conscious. These don't communicate with us anything distinctive about themselves (e.g. they do not talk or write books), hence we say they are not conscious

Religion and science can be technically termed 'forms of consciousness', and by that I simply mean they are different ways of thinking about things. What we objectify in the thoughts and actions of other persons are best understood as different ways of bridging the 'existential' gap. The reason the gap exists in the first place is that there is an entire physical, material world, which, in some sense, stands between us, separating us from each other. The Ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle expressed this by calling matter the 'principle of individuation'. I must speak my mind (or write a blog), for example, in order to make myself intelligible, and you can't actually know what I am thinking unless I do. That physical world can by examined, studied, theorized about, worked on, or even altered in some way. But the 'existential' gap, the distance between me and you (and not just my body and your body, but my thoughts and your thoughts) never disappears.

The existence of the gap raises all sorts of questions like how we ought to relate to each other, about how we measure up beside each other, whether and to what I should render assistance should you ever require it. These are, narrowly conceived, moral questions. But broadly conceived, they are also religious questions, in the sense that religious beliefs (one way of thinking about things) invest moral significance in even the most mundane parts of our lives. The heart of classical religious traditions like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, or Buddhism and Hinduism is found in some moral 'law of life' like the Ten Commandments, the Five Pillars, or the Five Precepts. These lists of rules are more than rules: they interpret life, defining between good and bad, by setting up moral norms. I will develop this point a little further in a couple of days.

So, in a short summary, phenomenological categories only tell half the story. Terms like religion and science do not only get at the objective world out there; they also say something subjective about how each of us make sense of that wider world.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Funding the Humanities

I won't bother claim to be a dispassionate or disinterested proponent of the humanities. A program of religious studies, like the one in which am I enrolled, is about as humanistic as it gets. Not everyone would agree with the characterization, of course, but the inference is a sound one. Faculties of religious studies got their start as programs in the secular or scientific study of religion. They were supposed to be non-confessional; and so were much less concerned with in the nature of divinity than they were in what this or that belief in divinity said about the human beings who held them. Focus was on the one thing about human beings that is difficult to explain away on other terms: why we believe what we think to be the case about X (where X can anything under or over the sun), rather than merely what we think about X.

So my numbness to the fact we in our collective wisdom have decided the humanities simply aren't valuable in the broad scheme of things thaws a little when the economist Christina Paxson offers 'The Economic Case for Saving the Humanities' over at the New Republic. The piece is an effort to turn the table on the standard arguments against funding the humanities. If we in our collective wisdom deemed the humanities valuable, some of the monies pouring into faculties of science and medicine would be reassigned to history, philosophy, and the fine arts. The federal government would apportion a lot more money to research grants in African literature or Asian antiquities. And employers would eagerly hire persons demonstrating a capacity to learn, critical analyze, and achieve research and/or other goals. 

But money isn't pouring in. Paxson points out the rationale for governments to invest in the so-called S.T.E.M. subjects--science, technology, engineering, and mathematics--is a simple matter of connecting the dots. The payout is calculably predictable, much like the sort of stuff dealt with in the subjects themselves. The same cannot be said of the humanities. Figuring out the monetary value of a study of the relationship between the two parts of Miguel Cervantes' Don Quixote, for example, is like tilting at windmills. A post-structuralist reading of Xenophon's portrait of Socrates suffers from similar pecuniary under-determination. These cannot be quantified in the same way the matter of the S.T.E.M subjects can be quantified. The consequence is that public servants, who must give an account of their funding decisions to their respective political constituencies, err on the side of caution and control for those variables which can be measured. And for the time being, the humanities live off a dwindling institutional memory of better days.

So we need to learn how to argue, Paxson says, 'there are real, tangible benefits to the humanistic disciplines—to the study of history, literature, art, theater, music, and languages.' No doubt she is right. We do need to learn to argue for the tangible benefits of humanistic study. Obviously we, especially those of us in the humanities, have forgotten how to make such an argument.

The 'economic' character of Parson's are problematic. Their weakness may be seen in how they haphazardly circle around the point. Here's a sampling:
'[I]t is evident that many of the men and women who were exposed to that curriculum went on to positions of genuine leadership in the public and private sectors.'
'[W]e do not always know the future benefits of what we study and therefore should not rush to reject some forms of research as less deserving than others.'
'We should be prepared to accept that the value of certain studies may be difficult to measure and may not be clear for decades or even centuries.'
The first argument appeals to anecdotal evidence, to contingent circumstances, not necessary conditions. The second and third argument brings in epistemic considerations about the inability of our metrics to predict the shape of the future. Most notable, these aren't peculiarly economic arguments. All three appeal to a rough and ready practicality. Well aware of the reasons offered for why the humanity ought not to be funded, Paxson skirts around the question why we ought to fund them.

Let me take a stab at answering the question. The strongest argument to be made for increasing funding to the humanities is that they, like so many of the other things we value in our lives, have no obvious, measurable, practical purpose. As paradoxical as this may seem, it gets at something essential to being human. The immediate payout from reading a good novel is almost non-existent. More likely, you spent money in order to purchase the novel. The same goes for conversations in coffee shops, reading the newspaper, or watching the news. The list goes on. We do these things because we want to, because, for whatever reason, we enjoy doing them, not because doing so has an obvious dollar value attached to them.

The idea of an entire human life ought to be subject to market discipline revolts even the most hard-nosed of capitalists. (Hence they spend extravagantly on the so-called superfluous aspects of their own lives.) For that reason, and that reason alone, the humanities needs a humanistic defense grounded in what it means to be human, not an economic one pegged to balance sheets and bottom lines. The proof is near and dear to every single one of us. The latter concerns cannot be ignored, of course, but they have their particular place in well-lived human life, rather than the other way around.

Where do you look for the basic inspiration behind such a reordering of priorities? Usually in religious texts, among other places. The first chapter of the Book of Genesis describes the creation of the world, and the creation of human being's in God's image. No reason is offered for why God created the world. The only thing the reader can make out is that God did. The consequence is that human life, existence itself, is best understood as the product of a supremely pointless divine act. Not to despair, though. Things don't end badly for the human race. The text of Genesis finds a reflection of God's supremely pointless act in the human being, a creature created in the image of its Creator.

The creation of humanity in God's image is one of those catch-phrases, like other ones insisting every human being is possesses an intrinsic dignity invested with certain rights merely by virtue of being human,which illuminate the rest of the world. We reason from them towards some conclusion, not towards them from other premises. Like so much of human life that cannot be rationalized on the strict terms of the hard sciences, things are because they are--or, more precisely, because we want them to be.

The image of the humanities as a beleaguered bastion of light holding out against an assault of bankers and bean-counters won't pass a smell test. The problems facing studies in the humanities are much bigger than mere institutional arrangements the immediate problems of funding allocation. Fiddling while the humanities slowly burn to the ground is something we have collectively determined to do, including persons claiming to work in the humanities. Stanely Fish comes immediately to mind. The malaise of a modern education is subtle and pervasive; it goes much deeper than individual figures, deep down into our basic assumptions about the way things are.

The demise of the humanities follows upon our collective failure to see human life as anything more than an individual can make of it. We live in communities, of course, but we have forgotten how to think about life as if it is lived in the community of others. So we fiddle while Rome burns, and pretend not to understand those things each of us individually desire for ourselves--a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs, food on the table, the company of family and friends, and a modicum of freedom explore this short life's possibilities--aren't also collectively desirable.

In the end, the demise of the humanities isn't merely about a small number of academic disciplines. 

Friday, August 23, 2013

Religion and Science: The Contemporary Debate

Only earlier this year did I begin to suspect 'the conflict between religion and science' no longer captured student's attention like it captured mine while I was in my in my first years of grad school. This came as a little bit of a surprise to me, which I wrote about here: 'They Knew Not Dawkins'. The long story short, it seemed people got tired of hearing the same arguments over and over again, and so moved on. As I prepared to teach a class on Religion and the Natural Sciences this fall, I was confronted by the possibility there was no longer a popular discussion on which to riff.

First, some background to these comments. The contemporary debate around religion and/or science questions goes back at least to the 19th century. Andrew Dickson White's The History of the Warfare of Science with Theology in Christendom (1896) debated John William Draper's History of the Conflict between Religion and Science (1875). The terms the authors used in the titles are familiar enough, but the forms of their arguments may seem slightly skewed. Draper's book presents a version of the classic 'religion versus' science thesis: science began among the Ancient Greeks, was sidetracked by medieval Christianity, and was rediscovered in the early modern period. But his book was anti-Catholic, and not necessarily anti-religious, insofar as Protestant forms of the Christian faith come out looking fairly good. White's book presented a more sophisticated version of the narrative: Christendom, or the community of Western European (at later American) Christianity, evolved out of a theological 'worldview' into a scientific 'worldview', and into a new and improved version of scientific Christianity. Of course, neither of these are quite the contemporary terms of the debate. The default assumption was not yet that religion and science are in conflict.

The contemporary debate shares a whole lot more with the thesis put forward in Bertrand Russell's Science and Religion (1935), namely, science progresses as it turns away from religion, and especially as it turns away from Christianity. But the form the debate taken in the past decade or so is driven especially by the events of 9/11. The destructive actions of a small radicalized group of Muslims convinced a group known as the New Atheists that religion in toto had to go. The group included the following (if you will forgive me a little rhetorical flourish) Four Horsemen of the Atheist Apocalypse: the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the cognitive scientist and philosopher of mind Daniel Dennett, the neuroscientist and philosopher Sam Harris, the journalist Christopher Hitchens, along with a few others. Their best-selling books were written in a moment of apparent existential crisis, with all the urgency and bravado that entailed. Whether or not Dawkins' The God Delusion (2006) or Hitchens' god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything (2007) counted as respectable contributions to 'scholarship', as some have asked, is a moot question. They succeeded in shaping the nature of the contemporary debate. Daniel Dennett's memorable description in Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (2006) of religion likening it to a parasite feeding on people's brain's, stealing their ability to think clearly, ultimately compelling them to engage in all manner of self-destructive activities. How else do you understand a suicide bombing?

The New Atheists made the study of the religion and science exciting. They saw the destruction of the Twin Towers as evidence fundamentalist religion was on the rise everywhere, and took aim, not only at Islam, but American Evangelicalism. The stakes were high: either rational peace and harmony or certain apocalyptic self-destruction. Science--or the attitude of tolerance its methods engendered among its practitioners--would save of us all from the bigoted ideas of believers. So the study of religion and science was not just some dry as dust investigation of  the historical minutia, but was about the ties that bind communities together--which is to say, it was also social and political. A course on Religion and the Natural Sciences practically sold itself.

The thought that this highly charged intellectual environment had somehow dissipated in the intervening years dawned on me, much to my dismay. But I hadn't been paying close enough attention. In fact, Dawkins called the Muslim journalist Mehdi Hasan out on Twitter for believing a winged horse had carried Muhammad into heaven to meet Adam, Moses, and Jesus, saying it was on par with belief in fairies. Dawkins and Hasan had met early on Al-Jeezera's Head to Head: 'Is Religion Good or Evil?'. The public forum only allowed a very superficial comparison of ideas. Their conversation could just as easily have been named 'Is This a Scientific Claim or Not?'

On Twitter Dawkins has continued to prosecute religious ignorance and promote the virtues of the scientific method. Following the row with Hasan, he has also received a good deal more attention from reporters. That means ye olde questions of religion and/or science are back in the public eye, at least for the time being.

Now is as good a time as any in the last decade to be teaching and/or taking a class on religion and the natural sciences.

The Interfaith Identity Crisis

About a week ago, the Washington Post argued the nature of interfaith endeavours has shifted with demographics. A more diverse population means interaction between religious groups is no longer restricted to the clergy. In fact, a typical practitioner can now be expected to have some sort of contact with persons of different faiths.

Children who grow up and go to college or university today have very different experiences than their parents. Interfaith used to be something people did. Now it is something people live daily. Though there now exist twice as many interfaith groups in the United States than a decade ago, making the generational transition has been difficult for many. Old assumptions are being challenged, and questions of new priorities must be raised.

In a Huffington Post article, Rev. Donald Heckman, Executive Director of Religions for Peace USA, suggests the interfaith movement must rebrand itself. The term means too many things to too many people to convey anything definite to the wider public. In response to a growing number of persons who do not identify with any particular religious tradition, he says,

'I think we may need to cede the term "interfaith" to the small but growing number of people who see faith, religion and spirituality as boundary-less enterprises of exploration and who allow for multiple affiliations. And the more narrow technical term "interreligious" needs to be co-opted to cover the broad arc of things that are multi-, inter- and intra- for -faith, -religious and - spiritual.'

But is problem really just about branding? If it's about religion, doesn't it go a whole lot deeper than the question of what a person calls themselves?

Heckman is asking the right questions. The way he is asking them, however, leaves something to be desired. The deepest motivation of the interfaith movement has always been to bring people together. And that makes the wisdom of more carefully parsing the names we apply to ourselves doubtful.

The problems the interfaith movement presently faces are perennial problems, which have taken on new forms in a new context. Seen in that light, answers to questions about how to move forward should become more obvious.

The basic problem has always been how one engages persons of other faiths while remaining true to one's own faith. How can I both be a Buddhist, Christian, Hindu, Jew, Muslim, etc. and engage constructively with persons of other faiths?

There seems an assumption, especially in certain Evangelical Christian communities, the logic of religious identity is ironclad: one can be either this or that, but not both. And the only reason to talk to members of other faiths is to convert them.

Rather than rebranding, the interfaith movement should be retooling. Since more and more people are living the interfaith movement on a daily basis, what is needed more than ever is to equip and teach people to find inspiration for interfaith engagement within their particular religious traditions.

I don't mean glossy presentations of the things religions share in common, though that must be a part of it. I mean encouraging Christians to think on what it means to see everyone as being created in the image of God, Muslims what it means to be Allah's representatives on earth, Hindus as jivas, and so on.

Our religious traditions, without exception, classically wrestled with the dignity and misery of being human. They set out to achieve the impossible goal of reconciling the entire human race to each other. They also cautioned against presuming too much about one's own abilities to accomplish that goal. The labels we gave ourselves, in this picture, matter a whole lot less than actual flesh and blood.

The interfaith movement needs to see itself not as a solution to a problem everyone else has. If that were the case, then rebranding in order to reach a wider audience is all that's needed. The interfaith movement needs rather to see itself as taking part in the very thing people have been working at for many millenia. Only then will it catch up to the truth that people are living interfaith lives every single day.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Review of Arvind Sharma's Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography

Here is a question worth pondering. Has a biographer really done his subject justice when God appears in a life’s story as an actual actor, and not just as a literary device, inspirational thought, or private conceit?  At stake in the question’s answer is truth. Not THE TRUTH, mind you. Not what truth is; but much more importantly how truth is told.  Has a biographer told the truth of his subject if the divine majesty is allowed to skulk between every line of every page?

The truth is, or ought to be, it seems, much more mundane.  In truth’s unvarnished form, readers confront the cold, hard stuff of the real world. Right?

The question’s answer cannot be so simple, however, when a biographer sets out to write a spiritual biography.  The Yale University Press has just published Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography (2013) by Arvind Sharma of McGill University in Montreal, Quebec. With the opening lines, Sharma warns, ‘History is more than the biography of those who make it’, and immediately counters, ‘Nevertheless, some people leave their mark on history in such an elusive way that historiography perpetually fails to capture it.’

Gandhi was such a person, Sharma suggests, along with Moses, Jesus, and the Buddha, and a small number of others. Most biographies on Gandhi are written about Mohandas Gandhi. They refer to Mohandas with the honorific Mahatma, or ‘Great Soul’, but are concerned with events and people, politics and social processes. A spiritual biography of the man takes Mahatma Gandhi as its subject, and looks what it means to be a mahatma.

Sharma’s credentials certainly qualify him to write such a book. The Birks Professor of Comparative Religion at McGill’s Faculty of Religious Studies, Sharma uses his specialization in Hinduism as a bridge to much more general topics, including religion and feminism and religion and human rights. He is the author of One Religion Too Many: The Religiously Comparative Reflections of a Comparatively Religious Hindu (2011). The book is Sharma’s spiritual autobiography, a chalk full of wry observations about growing up a Hindu and encountering other religious traditions along life’s way. After the Gandhian fashion of marrying faith to social activism, Sharma has also convened two international conferences looking at religion and human rights: World’s Religion after September 11 in 2006 and the Second Global Conference on World’s Religion after September 11 in 2011. A third and final conference is now in the works for the second half of 2016.

Every one of Gandhi’s biographers must confront the question about the source of his power to inspire. The ends of spiritual biography, Sharma’s argument runs, are much more appropriate to Gandhi’s fundamental motivations than are other sorts of biography. It goes to the heart of the matter, so to speak, to the place where word intersects with deed. ‘Gandhi’s claim was made upon our conscience; he demonstrated that spirituality is to be found at the core of our humanity.’

Sharma’s discussion is lively. At points, even if a little dialectical and didactic, the prose dances off the page into the reader’s imagination. Spiritual biographers risk falling into hagiography, but Sharma demythologizes Gandhi in order to preserve his saintliness. Gandhi demythologized himself, Sharma points out, by attributing his larger-than-life accomplishments to God. If he was a saint, his saintliness was in part due to his willingness to own the flaws of his character. Sharma examines a number of them in the course of the book.

Which God did Gandhi serve precisely? Good Aristotelians the lot of us, we may argue over the specific nature and attributes of the divine majesty—or whether it makes sense to speak of God existing or as existent. Whether, in our intensely analytic moments, we master our language or it masters us remains to be seen. We also stand to miss the point, was the point I took away from the Sharma’s book. Gandhi died with three bullets in his chest and the name Rama on his lips. He identified Rama with Truth, wherever it may be found, but especially through introspection and selfless service.

God as Rama as Truth could never be a mere propositional statement. The reality of God must be lived in order to be known. The insistence on identifying word and deed, Sharma points out, led Gandhi to his death. He was assassinated because he insisted India fulfill promises of a third payment to Pakistan because India had given its word. The fact the two countries were then at war could not change his mind. Gandhi took it upon himself to see the promise fulfilled; the name Rama on his lips, his final gesture was one of forgiveness to his executioner.

Gandhi: A Spiritual Biography divides neatly in half. The first half treats significant episodes in Gandhi’s life. The second looks at significant themes in his thought. The book does not propose to be an exhaustive study, though it most certainly qualifies as an illuminating and instructive one. The author may be forgiven, therefore, if readers find themselves wondering how Gandhi got from a point A to a point B, or what motivated him to make the move. The scarcity of this sort of information is easily compensated by the depth of Sharma’s treatment of Gandhi’s psyche: his thoughts on sex and celibacy, British imperialism, his own spiritual heritage, and the caste system are just a few of the topics he covers.

The book draws me to one conclusion: other modes of biographical writing aside, a spiritual biography on the life of Mahatma Gandhi cannot fail to testify to God. Absent the divine majesty, Gandhi’s intentions no purpose, his actions had no end, his thoughts and no object. Absent God there could be no Mahatma.