Sunday, 26 October 2014

Living ironically

All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
(2 Timothy 3:16-17)

In all the years of being a reader and thinker I have come to realize that old Navajo adage: All is beautiful. Now, I don't have any clue whether the Book of Genesis is older than the Navajo conclusion that 'all is beautiful', only that when G*d had created the universe He beheld His creation and thought that "it was very good" (Gen. 1:31).

Over the past few weeks I've been thinking quite a lot about ugliness and beauty of the universe, or, more precisely, whether I am myself beautiful or ugly. According to the vehement advocacy of one (the doctrine of eternal punishment) I am utterly without hope (unless I'm somehow capable of attaining the impossible—ie, live a life without sin); according to another view, I'm "created in the image of G*d" (Gen. 1:27) and that my purpose in life is to try and awake and actualize that dignity.

Without denying either conclusion, I philosophically, psychologically and spiritually lean to the latter as the more realistic doctrine (what an ugly word: doctrine). I do not mean that I have a "get out of jail free" card, only that I'm a living, breathing, reflecting, learning entity and, therefore, necessarily incomplete 'til the end of my days, if even then.

I'm re-reading the great David Berlinski's book, The Devil's Delusion: Atheism and Its Scientific Pretensions. Ever the master of irony, his "wise but twinkling eyes" (to quote Roger Waters) dictate to his considerable talent for well-crafted phrases:

If science stands opposed to religion, it is not because of anything contained in either the premises or the conclusions of the great scientific theories. They do not mention a word about God. They do not treat of any faith beyond the one that they themselves demand. They compel no ritual beyond the usual rituals of academic life, and these involve nothing more than the worship of what is widely worshipped. Confident assertions by scientists that in the privacy of their chambers they have demonstrated that God does not exist have nothing to do with science, and even less to do with God's existence. (Preface, p. xiv)

A bit further down (the very next page) he continues:

These splendid artifacts of the human imagination have made the world more mysterious than it ever was. We know better than we did what we do not know and have not grasped. We do not know how the universe began. We do not know why it is there. Charles Darwin talked speculatively of life emerging from a "warm little pond." The pond is gone. We have little idea how life emerged, and cannot with assurance say that it did. We cannot reconcile our understanding of the human mind with any trivial theory about the manner in which the human brain functions. Beyond the trivial, we have no other theories. We can say nothing of interest about the human soul. We do not know what impels us to right conduct or where the form of the good is found. (ibid, p. xv)

Living life ironically is a willingness to admit that we are capable of knowing only little and that what we know little of is not only open to interpretation and contradiction but that there is also a world of difference between knowing and being.

Berlinski makes it abundantly clear—as Socrates, Lao Tsu, the Hebrew prophets, and Christ Himself did before him—that merely knowing something is not enough and what is demanded of us is:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8)

Contrast this fundamentally insightful meditation, again, with what Berlinski writes about these men of action and certainty of destiny:

Richard Dawkins accepts Stalin as a frank atheist, and so a liability of the sort that every family admits, but he is at least sympathetic to the thesis that Hitler's religious sentiments as a Catholic were sincere. Why stop at Hitler? No doubt some members of the SS took communion after an especially arduous day in the field murdering elderly Jewish women, and with vengeful Russian armies approaching Berlin, Heinrich Himmler, who had presided over the Third Reich's machinery of extermination and had supervised the desecration of churches and synagogues from one end of Europe to the other, confessed to an associate that he was persuaded of the existence of the Higher Power. The death of Franklin Roosevelt inspired Joseph Goebbels to similarly pious sentiments. The deathbed conversion is generally regarded as the mark of desperate insincerity. Throughout their careers, these scum acted as if no power was higher than their own. Dawkins is prepared to acknowledge the facts while denying their significance. Neither the Nazis nor the Communists, he affirms, acted because of their atheism. They were simply keen to kill a great many people. Atheism had nothing to do with it. They might have well been Christian Scientists. (ibid, p. 25-26)

Mind, he is similarly unflattering to the outrages of religious history. In what seems his central premise in the book he asks and answers:

What makes men good?

Nothing. This is the answer of historical experience and a troubled common sense. It is the answer of Christian theology, and finds its expression in the doctrine of original sin.
...

When Christopher Hitchens asks how much self-respect "must be sacrificed in order that one may squirm continually in an awareness of one's own sin," the only honest answer is that for most of us, self-respect is possible only if the squirming is considerable.

Men are not by nature good. Quite often, quite the contrary. And for this reason they must be restrained, by threats if possible, by force if necessary. "Perhaps," Richard Dawkins speculates, "I...am a Pollyanna to believe that people would remain good when unobserved and unpoliced by God."

I am under most circumstances the last person on earth to think Richard Dawkins a Pollyanna, but in this case I defer to his description. Why should people remain good when unobserved and unpoliced by God? Do people remain good unpoliced by police? If Dawkins believe they do, he must explain the existence of criminal law, and if he believes they do not, then he must [Berlinski's emphases] explain why moral enforcement is not needed at the place where law enforcement ends. (ibid, p.33-34)

Now, I do not buy into the notion of homo homini lupus—man is wolf to man—(mentioned further down page 34 by Berlinski) but neither am I as pessimistic as Berlinski apparently is in the last couple of passages quoted. I cannot honestly deny nor contest his view of the necessity of law—moral, ethical, legal, physical—but I would only say that "education" (in its broadest sense) is the best insurance against nihilism and anarchy.

Religion, then, is as necessary as any other resource available to humanity. The moral insights in all Holy Scriptures (the family resemblance of all faiths) make up an aspect of the apparatus that allow human beings to derive meaning from the answers of "historical experience" and "troubled common sense" and "Christian theology".

Being of the mind that spiritual "purity" and obsessive need/imperative for ritual "cleanliness" as nothing more than manifestations of clinical OCD, I'm not averse to the notion that secular literary masterpieces (including oral traditions) and documentation of history in good faith—as much as art—are undeniable components of the meaning-making apparatus of the human soul.

Striving for balance and well-roundedness, as much as active efforts of cultivation of spiritual, technical and aesthetic sensitivities, comprise of the comprehensive maturing process of human beings. Are these needs "by nature"? Nope. They seem to arise and emerge from our experience spontaneously peri- and post- self-reflection, thus inexorably leading to Micah 6:8. What seems before judgmental and harsh becomes slowly full of divine wisdom.

Jay

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