Stupid!

One of the very few sit-coms I watch on the telly is “Young Sheldon,” the spin-off from “The Big Bang Theory.” It stars the truly remarkable child actor Iain Armitage and is in many ways more delightful (and funny) than its predecessor.

Young Sheldon is a nine-year old Sheldon Cooper who likes to brag (even in Church with his Fundamentalist mother) that he doesn’t believe in God: he believes in science. This is amusing when it comes from the mouth of a small boy sitting next to an adult, but it is also a bit stupid. As Pastor Jeff tells Sheldon in an exchange they have in Church, even some of the most brilliant scientists believed in God — to wit, Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin. In another episode, Sheldon comes across Pascal’s wager in which the brilliant mathematician explains that it is smarter to believe in God than to disbelieve in God because those who believe will be rewarded while those who do not cannot be. And even if God doesn’t in fact exist, those who believe will have lived better lives. This is a bit of a simplification, but you get the idea.

In any event, young Sheldon, for all his intelligence, has committed the fallacy of bifurcation: either God or science, not both. But why not both (ask Einstein and Darwin)? Indeed, it is a bit stupid to insist, as so many intellectuals do, that there is only one way to know anything and that is the way of science. This, of course, is what has been called “scientism,” and I have written about it before; it commits the fallacy of poisoning the well. That is to say, it rules out the possibility that there are other ways of knowing and it ignores the uncomfortable fact that there may be things we simply cannot know — mysteries, if you will. This, too, is stupid. We have already encountered two fallacies in the minds of those who, like young Sheldon, insist there is only one way to know.

But it is equally stupid to ignore the findings of science, including medical science — such things as evolution and climate change, for example. Science can deliver us a great many truths that simply cannot be denied without being completely stupid. And it is perhaps the fact that many people who identify themselves with religion insist that science is the work of the devil that intellectuals don’t want to acknowledge that there could be any semblance of truth in religion. This is guilt by association. Those people conflate the differences among religion, organized religion, and faith. This, too, is stupid — as Pascal would attest. But the fact is that a great many people who insist that faith is the only road to the Truth are as stupid as those who think science is that road. Either road requires a form of denial and an assumption that our way is the only way. There may, in fact, be many roads.

In a word, there are, as Hamlet tells us, a great many things in heaven and earth which we cannot explain with science. There are limits to human truth. But there is truth and it is available to those who are willing to search for it; while a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, the unexamined life is not worth living.  And the start of that search begins with the acknowledgement that we do not know everything and may never know everything. Not in this life, anyway.

It may well be the case that we will only know the truth after we die. Heaven may consist of a world in which the Truth is revealed to us. And Hell, of course, may be a place where truth is denied and everyone tells lies, a world in which everyone makes everything up as they go along and in which there is nothing whatever that is solid and we are surrounded by incessant confusion and uncertainty — a world of Donald Trumps, if you can imagine.

In any event, I have no problem whatever accepting the very real possibility that I do not know everything and that there are things which I simply must accept on faith. But I also believe that there are things that are true, things that stand on a solid base of empirical evidence and intuitive truths that simply cannot be denied. In the end, though, there is only one certainty and that is that there is no absolute certainty. That much I do know.

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As Things Now Stand

Anyone who has attempted to understand our contemporary malaise, as I have for many years now, must begin with the death of God. This is an uncomfortable topic and one that is dismissed by many. But if we contrast our current ethos with that of, say, the medieval period, it is clear that God plays a very small part in the lives of the vast majority of people in the West, at the very least. I have blogged about this from time to time and will not repeat here what I have already said. But a passage in one of Dostoevsky’s major works, written in his maturity, raises the issue anew.

Like Nietzsche, Dostoevsky was aware, toward the end of the nineteenth century, that he was living in a new age, an age in which God was no longer the viable force He had been during the Dark Ages when faith was paramount, the Cathedrals were being built and, as it has been said, there were no atheists.

In any event, Dostoevsky’s novel The Adolescent (previously translated as Raw Youth), brings Arcady Makarovich and his father Andrei Petrovich Versilov together toward the end of what is a rather long prelude as the novel nears its conclusion. Arcady’s father is imparting his wisdom and while doing so reflects on the godless age in which they are living and imagines what he calls a “fantasy” in which those who once loved God now turn toward nature and toward one another and embrace their fellow humans, “. . . each would tremble for the life and happiness of each.”

“The great idea of immortality would disappear and would have to be replaced; and all the great abundance of the former love for the one who was himself immortality would be turned in all of them to nature, to the world, to people, to every blade of grass. They would love the earth and life irrepressibly and in the measure to which they gradually became aware of their transient and finite state, and it would be with a special love now, not as formally.”

To prepare us for this insight, we are told that

“. . .after the curses, the mudslinging and whistling, a calm comes and people are left alone as they wished: the former great idea has left them; the great source of strength that had nourished and warmed them till then is departing, like the majestic, inviting sun . . ., but it already seemed like the last day of mankind. And people suddenly realized that they remained quite alone, and at once felt a great orphancy. . . .I have never been able to imagine people ungrateful and grown stupid. The orphaned people would at once begin pressing together more closely and lovingly. . .”

Indeed, neither the narrator not the author himself can think of people as “ungrateful and grown stupid.” But apparently they are. While Dostoevsky drew on his five years of imprisonment in Siberia and his tortured existence before reaching the autumn of his life, he was convinced that humans have a deep need to love and in finding themselves unable to love God any more — after the curses and mudslinging — they would turn to nature and to one another. Without the ability to draw on that experience myself, I find it difficult to say that people have, in fact, turned to one another and to nature. Their need to love, which I cannot deny, seems to have turned upon itself. Humans exploit and destroy nature for their own purposes, ignore one another, and find themselves alone in a labyrinth with no one to love but themselves. Or is it because they love themselves that they are alone in the labyrinth? It is not clear. But either way, Dostoevsky’s “fantasy” is just that. It is wishful thinking on the part of a brilliant and deeply pious mind.

I do not share the man’s brilliance. Nor do I share his deep piety. In any event, from where I sit I see only a perverted love of self that has taken the place of a deep and abiding love of something greater than the self, something “out there” that takes the person out of himself or herself and into a world of wonder and joy — and hope. This may be a mistake on my part, but if it is even partially true it would help explain our current state of mind, our collective anxiety, our sense of despair that is so deep that we would, in this country at any rate, choose an ignorant and callous man, a man who exudes hatred from every pore, to lead us to a brighter place

 

Abortion

I have chosen the title of this post with some fear and trepidation. This is a red-hot topic and there is almost always much more heat than light at the core of the discussion argument. But I do believe that the abortion issue may help us to understand why women would vote for a misogynist such as Donald Trump who regards women as so many trophies to be collected and spoiled in a way only he is privy to. Thus, as we ponder the whys of this election I think at some point this issue needs to be addressed.

The battle between the “pro-lifers” on the one hand and the “women’s rights” on the other comes down to a matter of faith, not reason. This is why the argument becomes so heated so fast. One either believe that life begins at conception or one believes that life begins when the child is removed from its mother. If one does not believe that life starts at conception then there are grounds for the claim that the mother’s rights over her own body are paramount. There is no scientific evidence that either of these claims is the correct one. It all depends on how we define “life.” Those who oppose abortion are convinced it begins much earlier than those who favor abortion. And the courts have determined, somewhat arbitrarily, that is begins after “fetal viability.” Again, there is no evidence that any of these views is the correct one. And since there is no evidence one way or the other the argument comes down to which group has the larger pile of rocks to throw.

The irony, of course, is that many of those who claim to be “pro-life” are also in favor of war and capital punishment which gives the lie to the claim that all life is sacred. And those who argue for women’s rights are frequently quite happy to see women in the workplace held down by a glass ceiling and making less money than the man next to them doing the same job. We are not known for our consistency, we humans.

My thesis advisor at Northwestern, Eliseo Vivas,  wrote a book titled The Moral Life and The Ethical Life in which he said, at one point, “the soldier goes to battle with a heavy heart.” In other words, there are times when we must take another human life. It is a matter of expediency: kill or be killed. St. Augustine insisted that the only time war was justified was to defend oneself and one’s group against direct attack. A “preemptive strike” is not justified. But the moral question is whether the taking of another human life is ever justified. St. Thomas Aquinas tells us that life is a human right and if we take another’s life we forfeit our own and he therefore justifies capital punishment on those grounds. Vivas would say “no.” The taking of a life may be a matter of expediency. But that is not a reason that carries any moral weight whatever. Since we cannot ever justify the taking of another human life under any circumstances (Augustine and Aquinas to the contrary notwithstanding) we can only attempt to reconcile ourselves to the fact once it has occurred: this is a psychological, not a philosophical, problem. The soldier with the heavy heart must somehow learn to live with the fact that what he did was wrong. And societies must seek humane alternatives to capital punishment.

Thus the abortion issue becomes increasingly cloudy as we try to deal with two questions at the same time: when is a human being alive? and once alive are we ever justified in taking that life? I confess that I do not have the answer to either of these questions, though I find the second question the easier one. I think Vivas was correct: we cannot justify taking another life; we can only seek to reconcile ourselves to it if it happens.

In the current frenzy of a political contest unlike any previous political contest I suspect these questions are at the core of the explanation why 30-35% of the  women in this country might want to support such a candidate as Donald Trump: they hope he would appoint a conservative judge to the Supreme Court who might somehow “overthrow” Roe v Wade and make abortion illegal once again. Hillary Clinton is sure to nominate a liberal judge and we will have more abortions and more death, in their view of things. For those who see this election through the wrong end of the telescope, thereby missing all the larger issues, I suspect this argument wins the day for many of the devout — whose faith I shall never question, but only ask that it be recognized as faith, not reason — and wish they would turn the telescope around.

 

Reasonableness

On a recent blog post I received a very carefully considered response to a question from a young woman who played tennis for me while I coached and also took a class from me while an honors student. She is bright and well-trained in her area of expertise, which is biology. She is now a mother and active in her community. She refuses to vote for Hillary Clinton and, I suspect (though she never said) she will vote for Donald Trump. This has given me pause and deep concern

To this point I have dismissed the supporters of Donald Trump as mindless minions. And while this may be true on the whole, it is obviously not the case with this young woman, whom I respect and am quite fond of. But I think she is dead wrong when she says that critical thinking has lead her to the conclusions she listed as the reasons she cannot vote for Hillary Clinton. In the end it comes down to what a person will consider “good reasons.” One person’s notion of “reasonableness” is obviously not that of another. I do suspect it is largely a matter of intellectual training (like recognizing good literature), but it is also a result of the fact — noted by David Hume ages ago — that reason is largely a slave of the passions.

The young woman in question lists six reasons why she cannot vote for Clinton, two of which are religious. I cannot dispute those reasons because they do not count, in my view, as reasons. Matters of faith are not subject to philosophical debate and are seldom, if ever, altered by critical reasoning. This is a good thing, by and large, since there are things we humans are simply not equipped to know and things we must simply accept on faith. I have always held to that view. In politics, it comes down to a separation between the state and the church, one of the founding principles protected by the Constitution.

But a couple of the reasons she gives strike me as rather weak and subject to criticism. I will discuss one. She worries that under a progressive president, such as Obama and Clinton (if elected) the defense of this country would be weakened. Indeed, she thinks, it already has been weakened.  Clinton’s own position on defense has been carefully spelled out:

Ensure we are stronger at home. We are strongest overseas when we are strongest at home. That means investing in our infrastructure, education, and innovation—the fundamentals of a strong economy. She will also work to reduce income inequality, because our country can’t lead effectively when so many are struggling to provide the basics for their families

She has not advocated cutting the defense budget despite the fact that this country spends 3 1/2 times as much on defense as China, which is second on the list of countries that spend billions on defense. In the case of the United States, we spend $581,000,000,000 annually on defense. But if cuts were to result from her presidency, surely, a cut of 20% (say) would not cripple the armed forces that defend this country? And Hillary Clinton hardly rates as a dove; indeed, she has shown herself to be rather hawkish.

And there are a couple of other reasons on her list that are subject to question as well, including her personal reflections on the failure of the Affordable Care Act which in large part seems to have been a success; but I won’t go into them. I do not want this young woman to feel as though I am holding her up to ridicule. On the contrary, I applaud her for speaking up and sharing with all of us the reasons she finds compelling for voting against the woman I honestly believe would do an excellent job as president.

What has me most deeply disturbed is the fact, which I shy away from, that reasonableness — which I have taught for over 40 years and which I embrace with both arms — is powerless when it comes to deeply held beliefs and fears. For those who fear terrorism, for example, this country does not spend enough on defense. And for those who believe that life starts with conception the notion that a woman should be the one to choose whether her fetus lives is far from reasonable. No reasons whatever will dislodge those convictions so strongly held. Arguments become mere rationalizations.

Thus, I am doubly disturbed by this young woman’s response to my question because I know she is convinced her position is reasonable whereas I am not, though I know full well that I could not persuade her to my point of view. I find myself having pursued a lifetime of seeking to help my students become more reasonable only to discover that, in the end, conclusions are often, if not always, based on emotion.

Dostoevsky Redux

I am reposting a previous piece of mine that received little or no response — not because of the lack of response but because (a) it’s one of my favorites  (b) Dostoevsky has always seemed to me to be one of the deepest minds I have ever sought to fathom, and (c) I have nothing new to say at this point!

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a child because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. He does this in front of the child’s mother. As Ivan says after reading the story, “I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.” These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the Grand Inquisitor who tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming to earth. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom. As the Inquisitor says, “Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.” Indeed we have.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary precisely because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. That seems to be Dostoevsky’s point — if novels can be said to have a “point.” Father Zosima, in the same novel, has no adequate answer for the mother who comes to him and asks why her innocent child had to suffer and die. There is no answer. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we sophisticated modern folk cannot do.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment. But it came on the heels of pervasive corruption within the Church, volcanic eruptions, plagues, and warfare — and the benefits accruing from the scientific and industrial revolutions. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was marginally insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted during their longer lives to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices.

Ivan Karamazov would understand — though, in the end, he went mad.

Hope

An inscription over the gates of Dante’s Hell, we are told, reads: “Abandon all hope ye who enter here.” As Dante is guided through Hell by the poet Virgil, he finds dozens and dozens of people who live forever without hope. Several times he feels sorry for the sinners but he is admonished by Virgil. After all, who is he to second guess God who, in His infinite wisdom, placed those sinners where they are? The New Testament tells us that there are three great virtues, Faith, Hope, and Love. The greatest of these is love and Dante finds very little of it in hell. Indeed, at the frozen core of hell he finds those who are incapable of love, whose hearts were frozen long before they died. The medieval thinkers married those three Christian virtues to the four pagan virtues wisdom, courage, temperance, and justice. These seven comprise the cardinal virtues of the medieval church, virtues that are all but forgotten today in our work-a-day world. But permeating through Dante’s Hell is the sense of lost hope. It is dreadful, indeed.

We here in Minnesota know about hope. Those of us who follow our sports teams live on hope, hope that next year they will achieve the Great Prize that almost always eludes them, and hoping we can forget last year’s disappointments. “Hope springs eternal.” For my part I hope that the world will be a brighter place for my grandchildren than in my darkest moments I fully expect it to be. I know in my heart that my generation is not leaving the world a better place than we found it — as we most assuredly should. I continue to hope that somehow the world will find itself at peace and that those who profess love for one another — as the New Testament admonishes us all to do — will in fact embrace this code fully and not merely pay lip service to those wise words. And, on a very mundane level, I hope that this twisted and convoluted political battle we see going on around us will somehow resolve itself without further violence and that a man or a woman with a grain of wisdom will finally be placed at the head of a fragile government that needs wisdom now more than ever.

I do hope for these things because without hope there is only cynicism and, while I tend in that direction, I refuse to allow myself to go there, because I know that to abandon all hope is to be living in Hell. The greatest virtue is of course love, but right behind it, surely, we find hope abiding.

 

 

Study In Contrasts

I suppose there are those who would say that it makes little sense to study the past: what’s done is done. But I am not one of those people. I think we study the past in order to better understand the present and anticipate the future. Indeed, I have had a special interest in the Medieval period for many years, not because I would like to have lived then, but because I am astonished by the depth of medieval faith and the character of a people who stand in such sharp contrast to most “civilized” people I am aware of. Like so many “uncivilized” people today they seem to have been so much happier than we are, despite their many privations. I have referred in previous blogs to Henry Adams who visited Mont Saint Michel and Chartres for several months and studied the two remarkable cathedrals at great length, reading copiously in the literature of the era, in order to better understand the age in which they were built. He also thought it would help him better understand the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the age in which he lived. In his discussion of Chartres, for example, he remarks, almost in passing, about the depth of commitment the people made who built the great cathedrals:

“According to statistics, in the single century between 1170 and 1270, the French built eighty cathedrals and nearly five hundred churches of the cathedral class, which would have cost, according to estimates made in 1840, more than . . . a thousand million dollars [in 1840 dollars!], and this covered only the great churches of that century. The same scale of expenditure had been going on since the year 1000, and almost every parish in France had rebuilt its church in stone; to this day France is strewed with the ruins of this architecture, and yet the still preserved churches of the eleventh and twelfth centuries alone, the churches that belong to the romanesque and transition periods, are numbered by hundreds until they reach well into the thousands.. . . Just as the French of the nineteenth century invested their surplus capital in a railway system in the belief that they would make money by it in this life, in the thirteenth century they trusted their money to the Queen of Heaven because of their belief in her power to repay it with interest in the life to come.”

The juxtaposition of ideas in these sentences provokes considerable thought, as does so much of what Adams had to say. To begin with, the devotion to an idea in the medieval period is astonishing and dwarfs anything Adams had witnessed in his lifetime — even the building of the French railway system! And when it comes to expenditure of our precious treasure today, the only possible comparison would be the immense amount of money we spend on what we like to call “defense.”  This suggests that our age exhibits less hope and greater fear than either the age of Henry Adams or the age of the great cathedrals, the age in which Christianity was most influential.

It is an easy inference to say that the birth of industrial capitalism killed Christian belief, for all intents and purposes. But this may be a bit simplistic. Surely, the conviction that a railway system and steam power could take us all to the promised land was widespread in Adams’ day, as is the deeply held belief in our own day that the billions of dollars we spend on the military will keep us safe and happy. Those beliefs have assuredly helped turn people’s attention away from the Christian belief in life after death to life here and now. However, those beliefs pale in contrast with those of the people who had so little in the way of material goods and yet were willing to devote their lives to making the great cathedrals — most of the people who helped build them not living long enough to see them completed. And just consider the staggering numbers of cathedrals built in the period Adams alludes to and the countless number of people who must have been involved in that building — especially considering that they had to haul solid granite boulders of immense size and weight from a quarry five miles outside of Chartres to the top of a hill where the cathedral was built and then raise them to a height of 370′ just to construct the towers at the West entrance! We really have nothing to compare it with in our age, not even putting men on the moon — which very few of us were involved with. And the fact is that most of the things we would point to proudly as accomplishments of modern men and women would reveal beneath the surface the motive of profit and personal gain; so, if we hesitate to claim that capitalism killed Christianity, we can safely say it helped render it irrelevant.

Be that as it may, the contrast that interested Adams most is that between “ignorance  fortified by a certain element of nineteenth century indifference which refuses to be interested in what it cannot understand [and] the thirteenth century which cared little to comprehend anything except the incomprehensible.” Dare I suggest that we share that nineteenth century ignorance born of indifference while at the same time we refuse to recognize our ignorance and arrogantly insist that that there is nothing we cannot comprehend? What Adams found most unsettling, however, was the absence in his age of “the good faith, the depth of feeling, the intensity of conviction” that he found everywhere he looked in 11th and 12th century Europe. Seekers who have attempted to ferret out truths about subsequent ages have tended to echo Adams’ concerns.

In any event,  it was certainly the case that most, if not all, of those working on the cathedrals in the twelfth and thirteenth century were convinced that their efforts would buy them a shorter period in Purgatory and almost certainly an eternity in heaven with the saints and others who shared their views. Thus, while we might want to question their motives, we must remember that the church taught in those times that those who did good deeds in order to get into Heaven would be disappointed. Motive was all: the motive was to do good for its own sake, not for the sake of a reward. The brilliant Henry Adams, who had the childlike gift of being able to transport himself back to another age, is convinced that those who worked on Chartres had only one motive: to create a palace for the Queen of Heaven.

Thus, while we might resist the temptation to draw hasty conclusions about industrial capitalism and the demise of Christianity, once we begin to explore even a brief passage such as this one, we see layers of thought that take us much deeper into an understanding of our age in contrast with that of those ordinary, and extraordinary, (unsophisticated) people so many years ago. People have not changed that much, but the focus of their lives has changed dramatically. While they prepared to defend themselves from attackers, virtually all of those who peopled Europe in the medieval period devoted themselves and their fortunes to the building of monuments to glorify God; we spend our worldly wealth to build weapons of war while we seek longer and more pleasant lives. We do not come off well in such a study of contrasts, since for all of what we call “progress” we are far behind in so many ways those who were dedicated to something outside themselves, who shared a living faith in something greater than themselves and an abiding hope in a better day to come.

Return His Ticket?

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the two brothers Ivan and Alyosha meet to discuss the “dossier” that Ivan has put together to prove that God does not exist. It is a collection of brutal stories of human cruelty, capped off by the gruesome story of a landowner who turns his dogs loose on a child because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. He does this in front of the child’s mother. As Ivan says after reading the story, “I believe the [man] was later declared incompetent to administer his estates.” These were stories that Dostoevsky himself culled from the newspapers and saved for the purpose of working them into his novel. After the reading, while Alyosha, the devout and saintly brother, sits in stunned silence, Ivan tells him he does not accept a God who would allow such pain and suffering: because of the evil in this world, he “returns his ticket.”

The chapter in which this dialogue takes place is the heart of the novel where Ivan also tells his story of the Grand Inquisitor who tells Christ that he has done more harm than good in coming back to earth a second time. It has taken the Church years to remedy the situation, to take upon itself the burden of freedom that Christ wanted to place on humankind, a species that really only wants “earthly bread” and is quite content with the illusion of freedom.  As the Inquisitor says, “Know then that now, precisely now, these people are more certain than ever before that they are completely free, and at the same time they themselves have brought us their freedom and obediently laid it at our feet.” Indeed we have.

The dialogue between the atheist and the devout Christian brings up many fascinating problems, one of which has to do with the nature of faith. In fact, I would argue that the novel as a whole revolves around the question of faith — what it is and how humans can hold on to it in a world that makes no sense. And that is the key here: faith is necessary because things don’t always (seldom?) make sense. Indeed, if things made sense we wouldn’t need faith; we could simply draw logical conclusions to prove that evil is a fiction (as Augustine and others of his ilk attempted to do). In a word, faith is precisely the capacity and willingness to accept the irrational — that which makes no sense. There is no rational response to Ivan Karamazov with his dossier. There is only stunned silence and blind acceptance. That seems to be Dostoevsky’s point — if novels can be said to have a “point.” Father Zosima, in the same novel, has no answer for the mother who comes to him and asks why her innocent child had to suffer and die. There is no answer. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we moderns cannot do.

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment. But it came on the heels of volcanic eruptions, plagues and warfare — and the benefits accruing from scientific and industrial revolutions. If it wasn’t gone when Nietzsche said it was, it surely was by the time of  Great War in which thousands of young men died in the trenches in a war that was marginally insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices became less and less real to growing numbers of people whose attention shifted to immediate pleasure and the gratification of desires in this world — and who definitely did not want to make sacrifices. Ivan Karamazov would understand this because he too returned his ticket. But then he also went mad in the end.

Conservative Numbers

A recent story from ABC news about the growing number of “conservative” voters around the country raises interesting questions. The story reads, in part, as follows:

“Even the general public has increasingly leaned to the right. In a Gallup poll last month, 40 percent of Americans identified themselves as conservative, 35 percent as moderate and 21 percent as liberal. The numbers marked the third straight year that conservatives outnumbered moderates, which have declined steadily since the early 1990s. . . .

“‘In recent years, conservatives have become the single largest group, consistently outnumbering moderates since 2009 and outnumbering liberals by 2 to 1. Overall, the nation has grown more ideologically polarized over the past decade,’ the analysis stated. ‘The increase in the proportion of conservatives is entirely the result of increased conservatism among Republicans and independents, and is also seen in Americans 30 and older — particularly seniors.'”

I especially like the last sentence where we are told that the proportion of conservatives has increased because of “increased conservatism.” Is it just me, or is that circular? It tells us nothing. In fact, the entire article tells us very little because (as I have said before) we really don’t know what these terms mean.

But there are several reasons why the country as a whole seems to be drifting to the political right. To begin with, the population is aging and as we grow older we tend to become more conservative — meaning we don’t like change. And, given that we are talking about “dollar conservatism,” in a weak economy people naturally want to hold on to their money. Nothing startling here.

But the really interesting question is why people tend to become conservative in the first place. As suggested, we tend to be more liberal when we are young and more conservative as we grow older. The key factor, it seems to me, is fear of uncertainty. As young people we fear change less because we are more hopeful (naive?) that change will bring us success (in the terms we tend to measure success in this country). The young tend not to fear much of anything: they think they are invincible. As we grow older we realize that we are not invincible and that change doesn’t always translate into success. In a word, we become more fearful. And this seems to be the root of the issue.

Again, using the terms in the rather loose way we use them, the people who identify themselves as “conservative,” include those in the camp of the spiritually certain who fear that the country is going to the devil. In the middle of that group are those who want to do away with sex education, the teaching of evolution, reintroduce prayer in the schools, and/or do away with government entirely. But the “conservative” group also includes many who do not identify themselves as Christian enthusiasts but who are nevertheless fearful of change in any form. There is some reason for this as the face of the world seems to exhibit so many frowns at present. There are a great many things to fear in a world in which not only the economy is tottering, but violence is forever in the news, terrorism is an ever-present possibility anywhere and at any time, and hatred seems to be the rule of the day. It takes a person who is either in denial or who has a great deal of hope to be sanguine these days. And there seems to be a smaller number of these people as each day passes.

Hope is regarded in the New Testament as one of the three cardinal virtues, along with faith and love. And the hope mandated in the New Testament is based on the conviction that a better day is coming, and that particular conviction grows weaker every day — even among the religious right that should be the one group in this country that has hope in abundance. The expectation that there is a better world, the hope that we will be happier after we leave this world, has grown weaker since the First World War, as cultural historians have noted many times. As long as one focuses attention on this world — and especially on the kind of “lifestyle” one wants to achieve in this world — there can be hope only as long as there is considerable optimism, as there was in this country just prior to the Great War. And as things in this world seem more and more uncertain and even frightening, it follows that we will become more and more conservative, clinging to the things we know and are closest to us and fearing anything that threatens to take those things away.

In a word, it stands to reason that as a culture the more we focus on this world the more fearful we become. The more fearful we become the more conservative. The thing we fear most is change, because there is too much of it, and it always seems to make things worse. Conservatism grows along with uncertainty and fear.

Unmitigated Tragedy

As is the case with many of the words we bandy about these days, we tend to misuse the term “tragedy.” We think that if the running back gets a nasty hit and tears his ACL it’s a tragedy. It may simply be terribly sad. We don’t distinguish between pathos and tragedy. The Greeks thought tragedy arises from the conflict between a wrong that is also right and a right that is also wrong — like Antigone’s dilemma when faced with Creon’s prohibition against burying her brother. You can’t win for losing. Ultimately, somehow, tragedies affirmed the rightness of the universe, a cosmic harmony where wrongs are punished and humans learned by suffering from their mistakes. The evil that they commit is due largely to their overweening pride, or hubris, and they get what they deserved.

Shakespeare pushed the envelope a bit, suggesting that tragedy arises from within human hearts resulting in evil on a scale that defies explanation — not just from simple blunders, but from thoroughly wicked motives, from minds that are deeply disturbed or, perhaps, deeply troubled. There is also the sense in Shakespeare that tragedies are frequently undeserved. This sense of the word is reflected in tragedies like Hamlet, Macbeth and, especially King Lear.

My thesis adviser at Northwestern, Eliseo Vivas, agreed with Shakespeare. He thought there were “unmitigated” tragedies, those that simply could not be explained away.  King Lear, for example, showed us human beings, like Lear’s “dog daughters” Goneril and Regan, who are fundamentally and irreducibly evil. One cannot explain it away on grounds of pop psychology/sociology, or even the machinations of the depth psychologist. They are simply evil. And they are representative of whole groups of people who are simply no damned good — no matter how you look at it. Unmitigated tragedies occur every day and they cannot be explained away.

Wallace Stegner sensed the same thing and wrote a powerful, if disturbing, novel entitled All The Little Live Things about a fascinating young woman who loved life and affirmed her enthusiasm for every living thing, but who died an awful death when cancer worked its way into her liver and kidneys, killing both her and the unborn child within her. That, thought Stegner, is pure evil, and it cannot be explained away as some sort of human mistake.  But let him tell it:

“. . .how random and indiscriminate [evil] is, think how helplessly we must submit, think how impossible it is to control or direct it. Think how often beauty and delicacy and grace are choked out by weeds. Think how endless and dubious is the progress from weed to flower.. . .Think of the force of life, yes, but think of the component of darkness in it. One of the things that’s in the [mother’s] milk is the promise of pain and death.” 

Stegner quotes William Wordsworth in the front pages of his novel: “Oh Sir! the good die first,/And they whose hearts are dry as summer dust/ Burn to the socket.”

Stegner’s heroine is in her early 30s and pregnant. She desperately hopes the baby will be born before she herself dies. So she refuses any treatments that will prolong her own life and threaten the child within her. In the end she also refuses pain killers on the same grounds. She hopes that her child will live, but in doing so dies a gruesome death and her child is born, “a blob of blue flesh that moved a little, and bleated weakly, and died.” There is good in this world, and real beauty. But there is also ugliness and ineluctable evil. Unmitigated tragedy.

One who is able to take the leap of faith, like Dostoevsky’s Father Zosima, can somehow embrace the absurdity of human existence. He takes the leap with love and hope — and an anguished heart, because he knows evil is real and cannot be explained away. But he still believes. For the rest of us we are left with doubt, uncertainty, and bitterness when we read or hear about the death of an innocent child or a loving adult. We demand an explanation that makes sense to us. But we cannot find one. The person of true faith, who has taken the leap, doesn’t ask. He simply accepts.