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“this is not a detached dissertation but an exploration of my origins, an indirect attempt at self-definition” —Octavio Paz

What Just About Everybody Gets Wrong (Including the Angry Atheists)

Religion need not start with belief, but rather with an understanding that encounters with holiness in the world demand— and have always demanded— a metaphorical structure to contain them and give them meaning.

– from What the Angry Atheists Get Wrong, by Scott Korb and Peter Bebergal

Certain ideas have been stewing lately in my mind, and several events have transpired to put them in the brew together. Two events have been primary, though. The first is that someone dear to me recently sent some Christian tracts in an effort to reconvert me to Christianity, after my abandoning it some years ago and their having recently deduced my absconding. I know the attempt is well-intentioned, and, though I couldn’t help feeling incredulous and insulted at first, the gift ultimately made me want to explicate my own philosophy. I wanted to know if I could explain ‘what I think about myself and about the world’ clearly and thoroughly enough for someone who is the utter inverse of me philosophically, with utterly different presumptions about ‘oneself and the world,’ to understand. So I sat down to explain why I was not a Christian, how the doctrinal specifics of Christianity versus everything else are hardly a matter about which I am concerned or capable of being persuaded to accept when I don’t believe in God in the first place, etc. In trying to explain all this, though, I ran into wall after wall— all my words were inadequate, incorrect, mis-representative; or I was forced to understand more rigorously exactly how various beliefs of mine coalesce in order to explain or modify them. The other event was that, while attempting all of this, a friend of mine wrote a post in which he discussed William James’ essay “The Will to Believe,” and how his own definition of faith and belief has been changing recently in a way that remarkably paralleled my own.

The two extremes— learning how to express my current beliefs, with the aid of someone coming from a similar position, to someone coming from a position I once held but that is now utterly foreign— along with the reading I’ve been doing recently, has proven a very interesting dynamic. One of the many things I’ve come across that were striking in their relevance or eloquence was the article from which the opening quote is taken.

I very much like that quotes’ description of the role of religion, though I disagree that this applies strictly to religion or that “encounters with holiness” are exclusively what a structure (i.e. a philosophy) gives meaning to. I would reverse the terms, that belief need not start with religion. I imagine that distinction, though, is the product of the authors’ belief in God allowing ‘holiness’ to be defined as encountering God, while ‘encounters with holiness’ without a god want justification (hence the authors’ justification of religion). Creating a metaphorical structure to contain and give meaning to these encounters, which can range from the momentous occasion on the mountaintop to life as mere existence, is what belief is about, what belief does, for the most part, because the fact that we can have the experience of otherness, of consciousness external to ourselves (whether that be in other humans or falsely perceived in the natural world) demands a means of understanding those experiences. Religion is a means by which many people create that system, accepting (though never more than partially, by default) a belief structure created and refined through time. And by metaphorical structure, I don’t mean strictly a structure of metaphors. The structure itself is a metaphor for “the way things work.”

This applies to everything, from the the Dewey decimal system to religion to evolution. Sometimes a system actively organizes, like arranging books in a library according to numbers for easy reference, and sometimes it’s an attempt to understand the organization of something that already is, like Linnaean taxonomy. Different structures are capable of handling different things and/or are used for different purposes. You don’t look up the taxonomic organization of corn to decide if you want to eat some with the solanum tuberosum and bos taurus you’re cooking. On the other hand, some structures are applicable for more than one situation, e.g. understanding organic chemistry might make you a better cook. Structures also overlap in that different ones can explain the same topic. Language is the easiest example here, because I can say “Je m’appele Pierre” or “My name is Peter” and both accomplish roughly the same thing. The point is, though, that the world is not systematized in and of itself. Systems are names, interpretations which we apply to the raw data of the world. The evolution of various theories and systems over time, which must adjust themselves with every acquisition of new data, attests to this.

This is how I have come to understand such oft-quoted and railed against sayings about how religion and science can coexist because they describe different things, or they are coequal but separate spheres. It is not so much that each has their own domain, that science gets the explicable and religion the inexplicable. I think of it more like the different fields of literary criticism. I can read a text through marxist theory, postcolonial theory, feminist theory, etc., and get valid concepts about both the world and the work being considered, because both the text and the theory are of each other, informed by each other, affecting, creating, and reflexively modifying each other. However much they try to be, critical fields and structures of metaphor are not outside the system they purport to analyze. The text exists without my systematized interpretation, yes, as the world does, but there is always some method of interpretation, however formalized or not, between me and the text. Marxist theory, or any other theory, is not correct, per say. To be ‘correct’ in that sense, a theory or system must refer to a preexisting rule-set (which we do not know if there is one), a better and more complete knowledge of which we are always aspiring to gain. But Marxism is a method of interpretation with precedent in the real world (the nature and origin of that precedent is a whole ‘nother can of worms). The progression from Modernism through Postmodernism to Whatever It Is Now seems to me to be the basic explanation for this progression of how belief, and its various metaphorical structures, are treated in relation to the world.

Modernism was simultaneously a dawning of incredulity towards existing ‘grand narratives,’ the famous definition, and an attempt to transcend these pre-existing narratives to create a universal, universally-applicable system. God died and linguistics was born; the Bible became a book like any other, and the search began for a grand unified theory that encapsulates everything from the movement of subatomic particles to planets (and people began wondering whether quantum physics means we have no free will, instead of God’s plan). When most people realized that definitive, wholly-encompassing systems don’t work so well, not just the given ones that modernism rejected, that there is always outlying data— not to mention the burgeoning questions about the nature of consciousness and the barriers that presents (e.g. can the brain understand the brain? can the perceiving organism dissociate the object perceived from the act of perception?)— post-modernism became the dominant mode of culture.

On one hand, postmodernism runs to irony with the ad absurdum arguments it makes, taking a theory or argument to its utmost extreme in order to prove that it is ultimately implausible. This is the starting point of postmodernism’s self-critical, self-deprecating, and, in a way, self-hating perspectives which cause both the subject and the object to collapse inward and make a mockery of itself (each, respectively). A definitive example of this would be the shift from structuralism to post-structuralism in literary theory, the first attempting to create a fail-safe system of literary interpretation, only to be subsumed by the absurdity of such a project and divert its resources to play, to the pleasure of the text. This is, ironically, a root influence on fundamentalism, I think. Mistaking postmodernism’s irony for seriousness, the ideological sucker punches for serious inquiry, religion had to defend itself thoroughly and without humor, explaining devoutly and clearly exactly what its beliefs are without sacrificing any ground at all, because to allow for one crack means the whole structure crumbles when you’re arguing against absurdity. Hence, intelligent design and a 6,000 year old earth created in a week, despite all evidence being to the contrary, all of which was planted to test our faith. If all systems of explanation are absurd, then why not vociferously cling to the one you know? Postmodernism beat everything to death with absurdity, and, if you weren’t in on the joke, it caused the immediate reflex of reducing oneself to the absurd to maintain one’s stance. And if you were in on the joke, you were already striking a new pose, laughing about how useless the pose was, and probably hating yourself for it.

On the other hand, postmodernism desperately seeks to break (and create) new ground by freely recycling the narratives, images, symbols, etc. of the past, while being completely aware that new rapidly becomes old and that ‘there is nothing new under the sun.’ In the face of absurd arguments and the knowledge that you can argue anything (all you have to do is change contexts, use a different dictionary, in short, challenge or change the authority), authority is helpless.

I’m indulging myself in overly broad ranting, probably, but to set the stage for this, from the same article (the sentence following the first quote, actually):

Religion should take its myths seriously, but not literally, with the self-conscious awareness that behind these stories are actual worldly encounters with something amazing and often terrifying.

And then, a little later:

We begin with the premise that actual belief in God is not necessary to the religious imagination. It is within the religious imagination, in fact, that the very idea of God arises. Whether or not God actually exists, what makes God even possible is that through our encounters with others and the world, we are called upon to imagine something entirely beyond ourselves. We shape an idea of the holy.

These two quotes, when juxtaposed, could be epigrammatic for what I think belief entails (if you’ve read this far, you’ve seen how long-winded I can be, so yes, still epigrammatic). In a certain way, this is my same argument, because it exemplifies a first step out of the self-defeating, unsustainable (by their very nature) stances of post-modernism, by way of the human will (and capability) to believe; but there is a fine differentiation between approaching this point of view from within religion (as the authors do, one being Catholic, the other Jewish) and approaching it from without, as an atheist.

I am open to, even still very much concerned with the idea of God/god/gods/g-d. It is a myth I could probably say I’m serious about, but not at all literal about, because “we shape an idea of the holy; we are called upon to imagine something entirely beyond ourselves” based on our experience “with others and the world.” In a way, this is why I’ve always found the “god-shaped hole” expression poignant, quaint, and cloying. The void of the other, the external, the inexplicable, the invisible, the unknowable, all create something that needs to be filled, and we thus create our concept of what is holy, what fills. Religion is one form of our creating a system to explain and deal with otherness. Hence, kindness to strangers, respect for god, and most of the tenets which ‘all religions [supposedly] hold in common.’

This particular spot is where I am on common ground with the religious. To an extent at least: implicitly with those who are fundamentalist about their beliefs, holding fast in the face of all challenges to their faith’s authenticity or legitimacy; explicitly in regards to those who believe ‘seriously but not literally,’ with an active participation in ‘the idea of God within the religious imagination.’ It is also where the Angry Atheists of the article’s title and I disagree, and where the article itself incorrectly captures atheism.

I do not believe god in any form, capital, plural, or otherwise, actually exists. There is no god. But the idea, the concept of other, the void which must be known and filled, yet forever remain void, is indispensable to me. The technicality which disallows me from subscribing to any definite spiritual doctrine, the ‘serious, non-literal, self-conscious awareness of the call to imagine something entirely beyond ourselves,’ is simultaneously what drives the desire for an areligious awareness of its possibility. The religious springs from the imagination, from pareidolia (for, if the world, the raw data, is not random, it is at least ambiguous), not vice versa. The Angry Atheists of the title, however, in the face of the uncertainty of post-modernism, resort to clinging as vociferously to their atheism, scientific rigor, and rejection of imagination as fundamentalists to their simplistic interpretation of scripture and disregard for logic.

I do not mourn the death of God, perhaps I even celebrate it— but I am appalled that so many, fundamentalist and atheist alike, seem to readily usher the death of its possibility in order save their ideological conception of it. Because to claim reliance on a system of belief is, for me, to sacrifice the only thing for which belief systems claim to offer salvation: the ‘soul’ (which I do not literally believe in either, except as a nebulous ideological repository for what makes us essentially human and unique, both as a species and individually, and as the internal reflection of the external Other). The self-conscious awareness of the call to imagine must not succumb to or cower in the face of the dogmatism of either school, but must be nurtured by the active and reactive awareness of the present absence that is the other.

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Filed under: Religion, Tangents

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