Sunday, 3 March 2013

There are no atheists in foxholes

In his anthology of essays, Inventing the Enemy (2011), Umberto Eco writes in an essay titled, Imaginary Astronomies:

I would like to make it clear straightaway that in talking about imaginary geographies and astronomies I will not be dealing with astrology. The history of astrology has continually crossed paths with that of astronomy, but the imaginary astronomies and geographies I will be talking about have all now been recognized as entirely imaginary or false, whereas businessmen and heads of states still turn to astrologers for guidance. Therefore astrology is not a science, whether exact or otherwise, but a religion (or a superstition - superstition being other people's religions), and as such cannot be demonstrated as true or false. It is only a question of faith, and in questions of faith it is always better not to get involved, if only out of respect for those who believe.

The imaginary geographies and astronomies I will be discussing were created by people of good faith who explored the sky and the earth as they saw them - and though they were wrong, we cannot doubt their good intentions. Yet those who are still involved in astrology today know perfectly well they are describing a sky that is different from that explored and defined by astronomy, and still they continue to behave as though their conception of the sky were true. There can be no sympathy for astrologers' bad faith. They are not people who are deceived; they are deceivers. End of argument. (p. 134)

I read voraciously and have always been attracted by non-fictional books (encyclopedias, books and articles on maths, science, history, politics, linguistics, anthropology, religion - anything that captures my imagination, really) though I also read a bit of fiction and classic literature. Generously, I'm a connoisseur of good writing and well-thought-out notions and ideas; less generously, I'm a snooty and fastidious reader.

Recently, I've been experiencing some stress and (perhaps unfounded) fear for my personal dignity (if not my safety so much). And, this experience has got me seriously examining my own personal belief and value systems. I need not get into the details of my particular situation because that is not the point of this blog entry but what I do want to talk about is what I've come to realize (yet again) how we sometimes lose our way in the value systems we ostensibly (uncritically, perhaps) hold dear to our hearts but only (it seems) in instances where we are not called on to demonstrate them with our actions.

I've always had a spiritual drive and expectation, and as a younger man became a lay-reader in our local church (years ago now). Though I kind of lose my desire for religion after a series of questions of faith that I considered very important at the time with our parish priest (having to do with Nikos Kazantzakis' The Last Temptation of Christ), my will to spirituality has out-lasted my religion.

I am no saint, let me make that perfectly clear. My "spirituality" is decidedly secular humanistic though I grew up a Christian and in my darkest hours I do pray with the image of Christ in my thoughts and wish-desires.

My recent source of stress - as far as I can tell - has no need for finer distinctions of humanity and ideals. Appealing to highfalutin notions of human conduct and dignity seems (seemed) rather pointless because the bodily needs were/are rather more urgent and immediate than an abstract discourse (poverty and homelessness tends to do that). These facts made me realize just how easily divorced my supposed belief and value systems are from my innermost concerns - the cruel irony of the need to preserve my self-image and dignity in the face of a perceived threat is not lost upon me.

I've become again more spiritually-inclined and more down-to-earth in my expectations of self in relation to others in need. Nothing in my situation has changed (as far as I can tell) but my perspective has. I am like Christian (insofar as my character content of another character called, Ignorance, who expected an easy way to Paradise) in John Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress when he realizes that all is not well in his spiritual life:

As I walked through the wilderness of this world, I lighted on a certain place where was a Den, and I laid me down in that place to sleep: and, as I slept, I dreamed a dream. I dreamed, and behold, I saw a man clothed with rags, standing in a certain place, with his face from his own house, a book in his hand, and a great burden upon his back. I looked, and saw him open the book, and read therein; and, as he read, he wept, and trembled; and, not being able longer to contain, he brake out with a lamentable cry, saying, What shall I do? (opening of the book)

The "great burden" I carry is no less than what I admire in others but do not seem to be able to espouse whole-heartedly upon my own person. I've come to realize (to quote V for Vendetta):

...Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth. And the truth is, there is something terribly wrong with this country, isn't there? Cruelty and injustice, intolerance and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing your conformity and soliciting your submission. How did this happen? Who's to blame? Well certainly there are those more responsible than others, and they will be held accountable, but again truth be told, if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror. I know why you did it. I know you were afraid. Who wouldn't be? War, terror, disease. There were a myriad of problems which conspired to corrupt your reason and rob you of your common sense. Fear got the best of you, and in your panic you turned to the now high chancellor, Adam Sutler. He promised you order, he promised you peace, and all he demanded in return was your silent, obedient consent. Last night I sought to end that silence. Last night I destroyed the Old Bailey, to remind this country of what it has forgotten. More than four hundred years ago a great citizen wished to embed the fifth of November forever in our memory. His hope was to remind the world that fairness, justice, and freedom are more than words, they are perspectives... [my emphasis]. (excerpt taken from V's TV speech scene)

What my recent contemplations have hopefully taught me is (in the words of V) "...if you're looking for the guilty, you need only look into a mirror." This is less an indictment (though certainly it is that) but more a humbling realization that I've only myself to account to for my dear-to-heart values and beliefs. There is wisdom and compassion in the serenity prayer, I have found:

God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.

Living one day at a time;
Enjoying one moment at a time;
Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;
Taking, as He did, this sinful world
as it is, not as I would have it;
Trusting that He will make all things right
if I surrender to His Will;
That I may be reasonably happy in this life
and supremely happy with Him

Forever in the next.
Amen. --Reinhold Niebuhr

I am no atheist; there is no shame in admitting that to myself.


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