The expulsion from the Garden of Eden is the beginning of life as I know it

19 09 2010

I’m a little fuzzy on the whole sin thing.

Yes, something about disobeying God, with apples, snakes, naked people, banishment, knowledge. . . really, if I were religious, I’d surely find this all fascinating, but as I’m not, well, it just seems curious to me.

But one thing I do like about the insistence on the sinfulness of humans is that those propounding on this corruption tend to see it as all-inclusive: Everyone is a sinner, everyone needs grace.

Handy to remember that.

I’d circled this issue in the last two posts, in terms of Christians and TeePers behaving badly, but one of the things I was too angry (!) to deal with in the Wars-of-Religion post and too politically-minded to deal with in confronting Howard Beale is my basic belief that almost all of us carry almost all of the possible characteristics any human being can demonstrate. The proportions may vary, sure, but outside of the exceptional few, I think we’re all capable of the same basic range of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.

This doesn’t make us all the same: there are clearly differences in the mix, as well as what each of us brings to that mix in terms of conscious effort and habituation.

Oh, crap, I’m getting too windy.

Lemme put it this way: I didn’t post the extensive quote about rampaging Christians (in response to Peretz’s claim that ‘Muslim life is cheap, especially to Muslims’) as a way of saying See! It’s not just Muslims! Christians are bad, too! Boos, all around! No, the point—which I didn’t explicitly make—is that people behaving violently in the name of religion is unsurprising, given that people are capable of behaving violently.

Yes, there are belief systems which explicitly forbid violence, but the existence of pacifist belief systems proves the point: If the adherents weren’t themselves capable of violence and aggression, there’d be little need for a system to discipline them.

Again, another capacity of humans: to restrain ourselves from doing all that we can possibly do.

But why restrain or indulge? What leads Christians in one period to slaughter one another and non-Christians and in another to tolerate and even respect them? What leads Muslims to laud or condemn conquest? What makes rightists or leftists righteously angry and what will they do with that righteousness and anger?

Ask the question instead of assuming the answer.

It’s too easy to say Christians are peaceful and Muslims aggressive (or vice versa), or rightists are patriotic and leftists traitors (or vice versa), especially when the historical evidence indicates otherwise. Nor is it enough to say that x-behavior isn’t representative of true belief, especially when—again—evidence indicates that x-behavior in another time or place was treated as the sine qua non of true belief.

Do you feel the breeze? Sorry, getting windy again.

I just don’t think we humans are better or worse than we were before, nor that we can even define better or worse outside of a particular historical context. Best simply to try to understand what we  mean by these terms, and to recognize what we are capable of.

For better and for worse.

***

Addendum: Perhaps this also the case for other creatures, and how we act towards and respond to them.





If green pears you like. . . why nobody will oppose (pt III)

26 06 2010

It’s been a long time since I believed in my own life.

This is a problem.

Yes, I know (as well as anyone) that I exist, that others recognize me as [absurdbeats], that there are things I can and cannot do, and I claim my rights as a person and as a citizen. Human status is not enough, as Arendt pointed out, for one to be treated well, but in most matters it is necessary for one to claim it—and so I do.

But I haven’t done well in claiming the full range of human possibilities as possibilities for me. My belief in possibilities is so strong as to be fantastical, but belief in making the possible real so weak as to be self-erasing. (Bad dichotomies!)

This isn’t, really, about hopes-and-dreams, but about stating ‘I can do this’ and then acting as if I can do this by actually doing ‘this’. I think about ‘this’, worry over ‘this’, work my way around ‘this’, but truly and practically believe that ‘this’ and me have anything to do with one another? No.

Pathetic.

It drives me crazy, this passivity, but I don’t know how to get past it—even as I have evidence that I have done or accomplished various ‘thises’: I went to college, worked for the college newspaper, demonstrated competence in a variety of intellectual pursuits, was admitted to grad school, FINALLY finished grad school, taught, moved around, and (also FINALLY) moved to New York City. And then, completely unexpectedly, I wrote not one but two reasonably good novels

These were things I wanted, thought about, and did. Evidence, it would appear, for my ability to create my life.

But somewhere along the way I lost that ability to translate my imagination into practice, to shape speculation into something concrete. I have evidence of ability, but fear a reality of inability.

In my two previous posts I mentioned both (internal) dichotomies and structured externalities, each in their own ways markers I could use to track myself. I need. . . something to get my ass moving, but I don’t know what that something is.

One something is financial need, which does work, tho’ not necessarily in the most productive direction. I need to make book, I’ll take a job, any job, just to get through. So, driven by anxiety, I can bring in paychecks, but because I’m driven by anxiety, I’ll take the first thing I can get—which usually means small paychecks which don’t do much to relieve said anxiety. I then may pile on another first-grasp job, which may help me to run even with but never to get ahead of myself.

(As a sidenote, most of this anxiety can be traced to debt incurred in my moves both to Somerville and even more so to Brooklyn. If I could just get on top of this. . . .)

In any case, having two or three jobs and living to work works, in its own way, for awhile, but then I say I moved to NY for this?

Which tells me that even beneath my passivity and anxiety is something which is holding out for a real and not merely simulated life.

It’s there; I just have to find it.





God sometimes you just don’t come through

27 10 2009

Goddammit. Time to write the goddamned God post.

Bad way to start? Too. . . insulting? Too glib-without-being-funny?

Look: Two lines in and already I’ve succumbed to the meta!

Okay. Let this post be born again. . . . All right, all right, I’ll stop.

Long discussion over at TNC’s joint on atheism and belief and who’s better and worse and why [not] believe, et cetera. As Emmylou sang, Yet another battle in the losing fight/Out along the great divide, tonight.

Ta-Nahisi Coates writes a great blog, and he attracts great commentators, but this thread follows the usual  progression:

  • God kills!
  • No He doesn’t!
  • Yes he does!
  • Well, okay, maybe, but so does Hitler/Stalin/Mao
  • It’s about ideology
  • It’s about human nature
  • It makes no sense to talk about atheists as a group
  • Then why are there atheist groups?
  • Those are activist groups. Atheism is simply a-theist, i.e., without god(s)
  • To not believe requires faith
  • ????
  • ‘Lack of belief is not a belief. True. But belief in a lack is.’
  • ????
  • Religious people are mean
  • Atheists are mean
  • Mean people suck
  • Flying Spaghetti Monster!
  • Faeries!
  • Unicorns!
  • [sigh]
  • You need to read more
  • No, you need to read more
  • You’re dumb
  • If I’m dumb, you’re super-dumb [Oh, wait, that was a couplet from The Brady Bunch, Jan to Peter]
  • Can’t we all just get along?

In other words, same as it ever was.

[Tho’ as an aside, can I vent a wee? To state that ‘is’ and ‘is-not’ are, in fact, the same, is a kind of infuriatingly useless word game. If you don’t believe in God, then you believe in a no-thing, which is itself belief, which means atheism is a form of religion. If all you’re doing is engaging a Wittgensteinian wit—for which that actual Wittgenstein would probably eviscerate you—fine; but if you think you’re making a serious point, you’re not. These arguments are not simply about the formal structure of language, but the content contained, however unsteadily, within that language. And yes, at some point, I’ll probably bore you with another post about why this distinction matters.]

Ahem.

So. I’m a-gnostic (lack knowledge), which may have a-theist (lack god) implications, but I’m not particularly dogmatic about it.

I doubt, and I’m fine with my doubt.

When I was a kid, I believed in God. I was an altar girl (the first, which somewhat discombobulated poor Father K., tho’ to his credit he brought me along) at the local Episcopal church, and, overall, I thought God was pretty cool.

Jesus was fine. I liked looking at the various crucifixes in the church, but, honestly, I thought more about God than Jesus. (I clearly lacked an understanding of the subtleties of the Trinity.)

I read a children’s bible. I wore a cross. I prayed. I mostly didn’t pay attention, but when I did, I thought it was all good.

Things changed, of course. Everyone has his or her own [de-]conversion story; mine has to the do with the rise of the Religious Right, and my disdain for any belief that could be connected in any way with the Moral Majority.

Have I ever mentioned that I started reading Ms. in the eighth grade?

Anyway, baby, bathwater: Out!

Things changed, again. I never really believed, again, but I did start to think about religion and belief, to learn more about its varieties—to pay attention.

Oh, so, so much more to this story, but let me, pace Lenin, telescope my history: I got to like hanging out in (empty) churches, a close friend and her husband became much more deeply involved in their faith (they don’t like the term ‘born again’), I read a grown-up bible, I had some good conversations with a local (NYC) Episcopal priest and. . .

. . . I still don’t believe.

Let me amend that: Some days I believe (in a non-specific way), some days I don’t, and some days the belief and unbelief is layered on top of one another.

Faith, however, I completely lack. That there may exist a God does not mean (S)He wants or has anything to do with us.

Faith seems to me far more dangerous than belief, tho’ I’m not sure why. Perhaps it seems more uncontrollable to me, or more personal, or that it is far more often deployed as a weapon than belief.

Okay, I know: stop making sense.

C. might argue that, insofar as I accept the information gleaned from scientific processes, I have faith—if only in the reliability and validity of those scientific processes. And Karl Popper (the great orthodox-science defender) admitted that one cannot use the logic of the sciences to defend the use of the logic of the sciences; at root, he noted, there is a leap.

A leap of faith? I dunno. Seems more like a jump-start to me: it’s up to the engine [science, reason] to actually move the vehicle along. If one’s methods don’t work—if they are neither verifiable nor reliable—then they are to be abandoned. Faith won’t see you through.

But religious faith, it seems to me, is itself the engine—the faith is itself the point. And while some might seek natural justifications for supernatural faith, such justifications are kind of beside the point. They might have a role, but, again, they won’t see you through.

A few weeks ago I blew out a bunch of words about Legos and coins—those of us who seek to put their lives in lock-step, and those of us who cobble bits together, precariously. As a coin-er, I’m not much troubled (there are exceptions) by gaps and inconsistencies, unknowns and uncertainties.

I can’t be, given how often my ground shifts.

Is it faith that keeps me going? Doubt? I don’t think it matters. I am no longer pained by the fact of my existence, by the justification of my self.

I just go.





God: Gotta love ‘im!

6 08 2009

Just finished GK Chesterton’s Orthodoxy.

Summary: I believe what I believe. Christianity is true because Christianity is true. Non-Christian perspectives do not make sense from a Christian perspective.

Uh-huh.

Orthodoxy is one of those books oft urged on non-believers as a way of allowing us to make sense of, and perhaps, bring us to, faith. It’s not quite an exercise in apologetics, not least because its argument, such as it is, is less about proclaiming and defending the doctrines of the church than in ridiculing alternative beliefs: His critiques of contemporary thinkers are scattershot, mixing and mashing them up so as to be better able to dismiss them all as incomprehensible, and his discussion of doctrine is almost non-existent.

No, the book seems more a matter of Chesterton explaining himself to himself, a turn-of-the-century version of the Talking Heads lyric Well, how did I get here? As such, it’s a kind of brief theological psychology, with reason dragooned into the role of the therapist.

Read this book if you’re interested in Chesterton, or if you particularly enjoy the alleged wit of reversal, along the lines of ‘you think A is B, but B is A.’ O ho ho! Imagine an entire book of such bon mots:

Descartes said, ‘I think; therefore I am.’ The philosophic evolutionist reverse and negatives the epigram. He says, ‘I am not; therefore I cannot think.’

If the apple hit Newton’s nose, Newton’s nose hit the apple.

If Nietzsche had not ended in imbecility, Nietzscheism would end in imbecility.

And on and on, epigram substituting for argument.

Allow me my own: I came looking for the argument from the man, but found the man in the argument. Alas, biography is not philosophy.

See, that’s not so hard now, is it?

Perhaps I should give the last word to the long-departed Mr. Chesterton (substitute ‘book’ for ‘novel’):

A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author.





Ghost in the machine

17 05 2009

She’s been gone two weeks and I don’t feel her anywhere.

I choked up as this photo loaded on to the page, but it’s been been awhile since tears could be prompted by the thought of her.

She’s slipped right through and away from me.

Grief may be about the recognition of absence, as I mentioned previously, but what of the absence of the absence?

I can tell people I mercy-killed my cat and move on. I pull FatCat close to me and wonder how she is as an only cat. I think about getting a kitten in July or August.

I don’t think about Chelsea.

There’s a photo of her propped on top of her empty food dish (a small pot I threw and glazed in her tiger-striped coloring; FatCat has a similar black-and-white dish), but I rarely slide my eyes over the shelf on which the dish sits, so I don’t see her. Out of sight, out of mind?

It’s a relief not always to be verging on tears, but I’m discomfitted by my relatively smooth transition to post-Chelsea life. I was worried about the grief taking me over, but now I wonder about the easy sequestration of that grief.

I thought she’d be here. Yeah, I know, I’m an agnostic about all things supernatural, but I liked the idea of her, somehow, hanging around. Ms. Blithe comforted me with the words ‘Travel well, Skinny Cat,’ and I like the image of her continuing on, somehow.

Somehow. I was worried that my own disenchanted naturalism would dissipate into a cheap spiritualism, that I would be unable to deal forthrightly with Chelsea’s death and thus retreat into a moony ‘when-I-see-her-again’ wistfulness.

This is not a slam against belief. My friend and colleague J. is both ‘an orthodox Marxist and an orthodox Catholic’ (she pronounces this with her finger raised) says that ‘unlike those goddamned Protestants’ Catholics believe that animals have souls and I’ll see Chelsea in heaven. (Which is sweet, really, that she thinks I’ll make it to heaven.) I demurred and noted that some Protestants allow for this possibility, but, as with Ms. Blithe’s comment, I didn’t really take it in. It’s a nice idea that I don’t quite believe in.

I ought to be relieved: my agnosticism is not as blithe as I worried it might be! My beloved cat is gone and I don’t experience her as anything other than gone. She’s dead, as FatCat will one day be, as any other cats I take in will one day be, as my friends and family and I will someday be. Dead is dead.

Curiously, however, I am not eased by the fact that I am not eased by any post-death possibilities. I ought to be pleased with myself, insofar as I sometimes suspect that my agnosticism is little more than cover for lack of commitment. I am committed to doubt! I say, even as I think I am merely keeping all of my options open. Don’t want to be caught out a fool, doncha know.

So the unbelief side of my agnosticism holds. Whoopee.

Another stage of grief? Bargaining or whatever? ‘I want my cat back. I want her here, with me.’ And that she’s not, in any way, is a kind of small desolation which confirms the possibility of universal desolation. Is this the movement out of bargaining into acceptance? That death really does mean separation?

And then wrap this whole situation in the that whole over/underreaction dynamic I have going on, and it would make sense that I lurch from constant sorrow to a certain stoniness regarding her absence, and from there to a cosmic absence for everyone everywhere, forever.

I want to be clear-eyed. I want to remember. I want to keep open possibility. I want to commit. I want to make sense.

So Chelsea’s gone and I know that. I know that too well. I just want her here, as well.

I want something more.





What next Big Sky?

19 04 2009

I don’t Believe much, although I believe all kinds of things. And I don’t Dismiss much, although I dismiss all kinds of things.

Yes, the caps signify one of the Big Issues: Is there anybody out there? Or in here, or laying about. . . somewhere? Anybody?

I mostly don’t believe, although it’s a congenial, changeable kind of unbelief, one which ambles in no particular direction and avoids no particular consequences. There’s a god? Okay. No god? Okay.

Either way. It’s not as if I have much to do with the existence of God or gods, or that gods have much to do with me. Maybe they look in on us every once in awhile, beer in hand, munching nachos and commenting on those crazy Grabowskis or McFees or Olapundes. And then they go back to doing whatever godlike things they do over beer and nachos.

Okay, so that’s a bit cute. And I’m also fudging on the notion that any god(s)’ existence is separate from us: What if they only exist because we believe they exist?

That’s the conceit which underlies Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a thoroughly enjoyable shamble through the back alleys of American beliefs and folkways. Some—many—of the old deities are nasty, and require a ritual of violence which, for the most part, has been smoothed away from contemporary religion. They’re not nice, and the people who invoke them aren’t always nice, but you nonetheless feel, along with the main character, Shadow, that the loss of these gods would, in fact, constitute a real loss. To forget the tricksters and warriors and shape-shifters would be to forget ways of being in this world, to lose mysteries and secrets and fortuna herself. And, in Gaiman’s world, the gods themselves are bereft, abandoned and small, trying not to disappear.

Even though I’m a big fan of reason, I’m not particularly surprised by my tender reaction to American Gods. As a child with an, mm, active imagination, my default position was that everything—and I mean everything—could think and feel. It wasn’t that I felt this way at all times, but that, when I wanted to, I could conjure up a sympathy with my favorite tree (an elm behind the garage, with a low branch for easy access) or cows in a field or the old cannon standing guard over the lagoon.

In fact, I don’t know that this was so much about my imagination as it was about childhood in general. Kids believe all kinds of nonsense—this is one of the delights and terrors of childhood—and readily share their stories with one another. And they learn not to share too much with adults, who at best indulge them and at worst tear their stories away and shred them. Grow up, they’re told.

As a child who experience the full range of delight and terror, I don’t particularly care to romanticize childhood. I like reason and explanation and science and the whole notion of demonstrable cause-and-effect. And I’m quite taken with the notion of chance and physics combining to form canyons, camels, and the cosmos.

But chance isn’t the same as fortuna, and the indifferent universe can disappoint as well as exhilarate. Most of the time I think, Well, we’re here for 70 or 80 years, and that’s it. If your life is to have any meaning, it’s up to you to make it, and even then, you might fail. Don’t count on anything beyond this world to bail you out of your sorrows, or let anything beyond this world to get in the way of your joys. Anything you have, anything you feel, anything you become is all here, is all you have.

And yet. And yet I think What if? I close my eyes and summon that child-sense of Isn’t there something more? You can see that in my writings today, that semi-constant questionof Is there something more? Wasn’t there something more?

I can’t put that there into words beyond the more; it is in fact beyond me, around me, running ahead and pulling up behind me. I walk under ladders and step on cracks and wish that there were ghosts and spirits and hope that not everything can be explained.