The Meaning of Life

One of the threads that works its way through several of Dostoevsky’s major novels is that if there is no God then “anything is possible.” In a word, without a supreme being morality is a sham and each of us can do whatever he or she wants to do without fear of punishment — except by the state if we are caught. Nietzsche echoed these thoughts when he announced at the end of the nineteenth century that God is dead and each of us must create our own morality, “beyond good and evil.”

In Dostoevsky’s greatest novel, The Brothers Karamazov, the atheist brother, Ivan, convinces his disciple half-brother (who isn’t very bright) that “anything is possible” and the latter murders their father. This is not what Ivan had envisioned, but it is certainly a possibility in a world in which there is no moral high ground. Ivan goes made in the end — which may be Dostoevsky’s answer to Ivan.

For centuries Westerners have sought to find the meaning of life in the word of God or a religion of some sort — even if it is in pagan gods. When Nietzsche pronounced God dead he was not far off the mark because, beginning with the age of “enlightenment” in the West, there have been fewer and fewer people in the West who seek to find meaning through religion of any sort. This was especially the case after  the First World War. As the years have passed church attendance, for example, has fallen off precipitously — except for mega-churches which are really nothing more than grand social clubs with comfortable chairs and  hot coffee and the promise of everlasting life to all who attend and pay their dues. In a word, those who seek to discover the meaning of life must look elsewhere. Many look within — or perhaps at their electronic toys. But for most, especially the young, the church is no longer the answer.

John Carroll, to whom I have referred several times in this blog, suggests that the meaning of life for modern Westerners is best found in the small things that are commonplace. By this he means that we can find meaning in our work, in sports, in friends, in our homes, in our families, in projects, in Nature. Indeed, he contends that Nature has displaced God in the Western world, though I would point out that the way we treat the earth raises some doubts on that score. But the key to finding meaning and avoiding nihilism, as he sees it, is the total involvement of the individual in the world and in others. Our guide, he contends, is our conscience. As he puts it:

“. . .all humans, unconsciously, know the true and the good, and are inwardly compelled to find what they know, through their lives and what they see. . . an instinctual knowing prevails, seeking meaningful shape in cultural forms. It does so for almost all and for most of the time. It signals that there is beauty and goodness and an order in the everyday, affirming why we are here.”

He refers to some of the interviews published by Studs Terkel years ago in which people tell what it is about their work that they love or hate. He mentions a waitress who takes special pride in the presentation of the silverware on the table, in the way she takes an order or brings the order to the table. She doesn’t just do a job, she works and takes pride in the manner she does what many would see as a menial job.

Meaning is not to be found in the self alone, which Carroll calls, simply, the “ego.” In order to find true meaning we need to become one with the world around us, immerse ourselves in what we do, doing it with total absorption and concentration and taking justifiable pride in a job well done. We need to turn our attention outwards to others and, especially, to the beauty and goodness that surrounds us.

Now some are lucky enough to have real faith and to find meaning in a God that loves them and promises them a reward for doing the right thing. But most no longer share this faith despite the fact that deep down most of us, Carroll insists, still have traces of the conscience that directs us to do the right thing. Our friend Jill reminds us each week that there are good folks out there doing good things, many of whom go unnoticed and unrewarded. They find that doing the deed in itself is reward enough. We need to listen to the small voice inside each of us and to direct our attention away from ourselves and to others and to the world we share. If there is meaning in life, that it where it will be found.

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Seeing Is Believing

Years ago I wrote an earlier version of this post and it fell on deaf ears. While I admittedly have written a number of rather weak posts,  I thought this one of my better ones. In fact, I included the earlier version in my book, Alone In The Labyrinth. In any event, I found it especially relevant in these trying times when we seem lost and face an uncertain future with a purblind leader on a planet that is under attack by greed and self-interest.  

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 small 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 return of Christ to Spain during the Inquisitions. The Grand Inquisitor 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 created by his first visit, 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. If not to the Church then to the state on which we have come to depend.

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 look and see or 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. We must simply accept. And that is precisely what we moderns cannot do because we think we have all the answers. We have become, indeed, disenchanted.

Ironically, the point was made brilliantly by Cervantes in his monumental Don Quixote. When a merchant questions whether Quixote’s beloved Dulcinea “really exists” and wants visual proof, the Don, who was much maligned and ridiculed by the fools around him, says:

“Were I to show her to you what would you have accomplished by acknowledging so obvious a truth? What’s important is that you believe without seeing her, that you acknowledge, affirm, swear, and defend the truth. . . . “

It is difficult, if not impossible, to say precisely when Western humankind lost its faith, when we started to insist that we need to see in order to believe. But Nietzsche loudly proclaimed that God was dead at the end of the nineteenth century. Perhaps that was the moment, though, if Cervantes is correct the process had begun years before. In any event, it surely came on the heels of volcanic eruptions, plagues and warfare — and the benefits accruing from scientific and industrial revolutions that prolonged human life and refocused man’s attention on the here and now. 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 completely insane. Those were times that truly tested human faith and it was found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demanded sacrifices and promised rewards in an after-life 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.

Because I Can

A comic I regularly read in order to maintain some semblance of sanity in this insane world gave me pause recently. One of the characters is bragging that he has a new app on his smart phone that flushes his toilet at home when he is not there. His friend asks why he would want to do that and he answers: “Because I can.”  Aside from being amusing, my friends, this is the technological imperative in a humorous vein. We do things without asking why simply because we can.

Strictly speaking, however, we aren’t doing much of anything. The character in the comic simply presses a button, as so many of us do to make things happen. And then we take pride in the fact that “WE” can do remarkable things. It’s not we at all, of course, but the device we hold in our hand that allows us to perform those minor miracles.

Gabriel Marcel, years ago, wrote of the pride folks feel when they see an airplane lift off into the clear sky, the sense of pride they have in seeing their fellow humans free themselves once again from the pull of gravity and take off into the great beyond. He warned us that there is something seriously wrong with this pride we feel. Again, we feel pride in seeing something someone else has done, not we ourselves — though even the pride we feel in our own accomplishments can be problematic.

In fact, pride has always been a problem. It was so for the Greeks who warned about an excess of pride, or hubris as it was called. There was a certain appropriateness in feeling the pride of being a Greek, of course — after all as such we are not “barbarians” (the name they used to refer to everyone else). But anything beyond that, anything in excess of the allotted amount, if you will, leads inexorably to tragedy. This was the point of the Greek plays that showed us again and again what happens when humans begin to think they are gods. There are things we can do as humans and there are things we cannot do — and things we should not do; we need to continue to remind ourselves what those limits are.

The Christian religion also had problems with pride, listing it among the cardinal sins — not just an excess of pride, but any pride at all. After all, we are creatures of God and whatever pathetic accomplishments we might list on our résumé are ultimately the result of God’s powers and gifts. We can take no pride in doing anything we do because the good that we do is God working through us. We must, rather, become humble.

To be sure, the Christian proscription holds little sway these days, as indeed does the Christian religion itself. We have shown ourselves unwilling to answer to the Christian demands for sacrifice and vows of poverty and we are even less likely to refuse to allow that we don’t accomplish great things ourselves — or take pride in the work of other human beings: we are not about to pass along the credit for human accomplishments to an unknown force about Whom we have serious doubts.

But in refusing to take seriously the warnings about pride and about its possible excesses we flirt with disaster. This is especially true in this nuclear age and it is also true in our industrial age when we see the waters around us rising, islands in the Pacific disappearing, and the tundra and ice caps melting, yet we simply ignore those things because we are confident that somehow at some point some human being or other will figure out how to deal with the problem and it will go away.

I sometimes wonder if the success of the space program — which takes us all away from this earth, and even promises the possibility of travel to other planets — has not been one of the major factors in causing so many people to somehow debase the earth, to deny, or at the very least ignore, the awful things we are doing to the Mother us all. Like the man watching the plane lift off into the sky, we take pride in the fact that human beings are no longer “tied” to earth. Our collective chests swell with pride. The earth is simply one more satellite circumnavigating the sun and when it has become wasted we will simply colonize another planet either in this solar system or one not so very far away. The games we play and movies we flock to assure us that this is a possibility.

It seems preposterous, doesn’t it? But I do wonder — just as I do wonder how so many people can ignore the fact of climate change and blindly assume that somehow it can be fixed. After all, we are humans and there is nothing we cannot do if we put our minds to it! There’s that pride, my friends, there lies the germ of tragedy. The Greeks knew.

Morrison’s Pill

Carl Gustav Jung noted in the 1930s that modern man is in search of a soul. Postmodern man denies he ever had one. In any event Jung proposed a number of possible substitutes for the loss of a deep relationship with a powerful and demanding God, and many of those suggestions have been taken to heart by a people who share a sense of the loss of certainties once so assured. Many would argue that those certainties were compensation for short lives, deprivation, wide-spread poverty, and human suffering; but, be that as it may, Jung was very much aware of the radical alteration in the outlook of a disenchanted  people who exchanged an all-pervasive religion for psychiatric counseling, T-groups, scientism, and creature comforts. The age of Industrialism, capitalism, and democracy came in with a roar and folks turned away from the heavens and toward their iPads and determined that their very own here and now was the most important thing.

One of those who worried about the radical changes and sought to cling to a past that was already dead — perhaps to resuscitate it and bring it back to life — was Thomas Carlyle, a conservative who, at the same time, espoused universal education and worried deeply about the disadvantaged, restless poor and what could be done to make their lives easier.

Carlyle was a staunch supporter of Oliver Cromwell and saw what he called the “Healing Parliament” of 1660 (usually referred to as the “Cavalier Parliament”) as the turning point in English History, marking the death of true religion for all intents and purposes. This Parliament acted in accord with Charles II who was restored to power after the death of Cromwell — one of Carlyle’s heroes. Carlyle saw him as a powerful man who could rule England with an iron fist and make the decisions that would heal her wounds and avoid another “reign of terror” that tore France asunder. In any event, the major results, as Carlyle saw it, of the “Healing Parliament” were the ruthless attempts to restore the Church of England and displace other religions, attempts that took the form of “repressive religious legislation.” Religion was once again experiencing a power struggle among the various Churches: the plight of ordinary folks was ignored in the fallout.

Carlyle saw what Jung saw later: human beings had become cut off from a God who could save them from any and all evils that might befall them while making the demands on their consciences that would result in the salvation of their immortal souls. Needless to say, these demands were not welcomed by increasing numbers of people who worried much more about the state of their pocketbook and where the next pint of ale might come from. Carlyle saw this alteration of focus as dangerous and ultimately catastrophic. In his book Past and Present — in which he wanders all over the place and sounds at times like a born-again preacher with a sense of humor (if you can imagine) — he makes a number of astute and somewhat startling observations. Regarding our love of money (including the Church’s love of money, of course) he has this to say:

“Money is Miraculous. What miraculous facilities has it yielded, will it yield us; but also what never-imagined confusions, obscurations has it brought in; down almost to total extinction of the moral sense in large masses of mankind. . . . Let inventive men consider whether the secret of this universe, and of man’s life there, does, after all, as we rashly fancy it, consist in making money?”

The problem, as Carlyle saw it, is precisely the loss of religion — not a religion we put on once a week for an hour and which allows us to seek wealth through self-indulgence, but rather a religion that demands that we seek virtue through self-sacrifice. He likened the recent practice of religion to taking a pill, one that would quickly and painlessly cure all ills. As he put it:

” . . . religion shall be a kind of Morrison’s Pill, which they have only to swallow once and all will be well. Resolutely once gulp down your Religion, your Morrison’s Pill, you have clear sailing now; you can follow your affairs, your no-affairs, go along with money-hunting, pleasure-hunting, etc. etc.”

The point of my bringing up the ramblings of a mind long dead and often dismissed out of hand is that despite his peculiarities, his concerns have been echoed by many intelligent folks who have lived since Carlyle died in 1880. One such thinker is the liberal economist Robert Heilbroner who notes in his study of capitalism that the passion of the capitalist to gain more and more wealth has created a “moral vacuum” in which anything goes and the end always justifies the means — the end being the maximizing of profits, needless to say. And, of course, there’s Jung, the brilliant psychiatrist, who echoes Carlyle’s regrets that modern man has lost his soul. As Carlyle would have it:

“There is no longer any God for us! God’s Laws are become a Greatest Happiness, a Parliamentary expediency: the Heavens overarch us only as an astronomical time-keeper . . . . man has lost the soul out of him; and now after the due period begins to find the want of it!”

One is tempted to dismiss this man as so many have done. But, still, he does make us think in our disjointed age — if we can think any more. Just because a man is a bit off-the-wall at times doesn’t mean he may not have important things to say!

Returning God’s Ticket

This post, from 2012, is being reblogged with some modifications because it seems even more appropriate in this year of our Leader, D.T.

In one of the most dramatic portions of that most dramatic novel, The Brothers Karamazov (which Sigmund Freud regarded as the best novel ever written), 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 in front of his mother because the child threw a stone that hurt the paw of one of the man’s favorite hounds. 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 observes Christ attracting a crowd and has him arrested. He then 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 satisfactory answer to the mother who comes to him and asks why her innocent child had to suffer and die. There is no successful 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. 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. Or perhaps it was when the Atom Bomb was dropped and thousands of innocent women and children were killed — collateral damage, they call it — in the Second World War. And we today know about marginal insanity as we sit in fear of what the paranoid, delusional man in the Oval Office (who is assuredly not the answer to our prayers) will do next. Those were, and are, times that truly tested human faith and it has been found wanting. Faith in an unseen God who demands sacrifices has become less and less real to growing numbers of people who have turned away from God because they refuse to allow that there are, indeed, times that try mens’ souls. Besides, they have to go and fill the gas tank of their new SUV. Ivan could relate to this attitude, because he, too, returned his ticket. But then he also went mad in the end.

Religious Americans?

In reading books by Gertrude Himmelfarb, whom I have cited on numerous occasions in these posts, I delight in the fact that she and I agree so much with one another. This, of course, leads me to conclude that she is a brilliant woman, since brilliance is defined as “in agreement with oneself.” In any event, we do agree about so much and I have learned a great deal in reading her books. She insists on one point, however, that strikes me as simply mistaken and I decided to write this post pointing out just where I think she went wrong.

Himmelfarb insists that America is the most religious nation on earth — or certainly in the West, at any rate. She cites de Tocqueville as support who, when travelling in America in the nineteenth century, was struck by the religiosity of so many Americans. Indeed, he was convinced that the American Republic rested on religious faith. As he said:

“Religion is the first of [America’s] political institutions because it was the prerequisite of both freedom and morality — and thus of republican government itself. . . . [Freedom] considers religion as the safeguard of mores; and mores as the guarantee of laws and the pledge of its own duration. . . . At the same time that the law allows the American people to do everything, religion prevents them from conceiving everything and forbids them to dare everything.”

The problem is, of course, de Tocqueville visited America in 1831 for nine months and while his book was extraordinary — and still is — it may not be totally adequate to describe the state of things in this country today. But, more to the point, de Tocqueville and Himmelfarb both neglect to define what they mean by “religion” and this causes problems. Himmelfarb seems to mean by the word simply church and synagogue attendance which is higher in this country than it is in many European countries, especially France. As it happens, though, fewer than 40% of us report that we attend church regularly – and critics insist that this figure is inflated. In fact, attendance in church among the young has lately fallen off drastically and the vast majority of the “millennial” generation – born after 1980 – claim no church affiliation whatever. But, regardless of these figures, church attendance does not determine religiosity, especially in the age of mega-churches that serve our favorite coffee laté and provide us with television sets on site to fill our empty minutes when we are not browsing in the bookstore for souvenirs. Indeed, many churches are nothing more or less than social clubs where folks go to meet and greet one another for an hour or so of a Sunday in order to make themselves feel good about themselves.

But it behooves me to define what I mean by “religion.” When I was  freshman in college back in the dark ages I wrote a seminar paper on Lucretius’ De Rerum Natura as a religious work. The first question out of my seminar leader when I sat down to defend the paper was “what is religion?” I looked aghast. I gaped, I was stunned. I thought everyone knew what religion is! So I struggled and tried to bluff my way, which did not serve me well. Accordingly, I now seek to make amends for past failures and will define religion as a set of beliefs based on the conviction that there is something in the universe greater than the self and that we owe to that entity respect and reverence, even devotion. Those who are indeed religious center their lives around the worship of this entity and find meaning in their lives by devoting themselves to something greater than themselves.

Contrast today’s notion of what it means to be “religious” with the medieval world in Europe in which church was the center of most people’s lives, with daily attendance (sometimes twice daily), prayers in the evenings, and total dedication to making one’s life on this earth a preparation for the next one. In that regard, I do think Lucretius’ book was religious and his “entity” was Nature, which he sought to love and respect and, as far as possible, become one with. In doing so, as a Stoic, he was convinced that, with discipline and determination, we could become one with something greater than ourselves and find peace in a chaotic world. For the truly religious, there is profound mystery in the world and it gives meaning to their lives.

In that regard, there do not seem to me to be many religious Americans. The data suggest that the traditional churches are closing their doors or seeking to conform to the pattern of the non-denominational churches that focus on fellowship and good feeling, demanding as little as possible from the parishioners and continually reassuring them that they are loved and are among the happiest and luckiest people on this earth. In a word, those churches that do manage to fill their pews do not demand “respect and reverence” for the God they profess to worship. Certainly not sacrifice. Parishioners, for the most part, do not center their lives around the church and its teachings. Indeed, the churches demand very little of their worshippers at all. They seek, rather, to make things as easy as possible for the congregation so they will continue to attend and help pay for the new roof.

I exaggerate, of course, but I seek to make a serious point: the claim that Himmelfarb makes about the supposed religiosity of the American people rests on flimsy evidence and flies in the face of the fact that so many “religious” people in this country have tended to resort quickly to violence, elect self-absorbed morons to political offices, and are caught up in the self-as-God movement which places the focus of their lives on themselves and not on something greater than themselves “out there” in the world. I conclude therefore that Himmelfarb was mistaken — at least on this topic.

Empty Churches

Abandoned Church Photo by Matthias Haker

Abandoned Church
Photo by Matthias Haker

The photograph on this page is one of a series of abandoned churches around the world taken by German photographer Matthias Haker. Interestingly, he does not name the churches or the places where they can be located. But all are, like this one, abandoned and falling apart. The pictures tell a story much more powerful than words: like the churches, religion is rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

This is not a popular theme and I have written about it in the past with little or no response. People don’t like to think about it. But the fact remains that traditional churches, generally, are being abandoned and turned into apartments, homes, or even public houses and taverns. The latter are simply more useful in a culture absorbed by itself and its pleasures. The church which has traditionally made demands of people — following the admonitions in the New Testament — preaches to closed ears and closed minds.

To be sure, the mega-churches have grown in size while their preachers buy jet planes and try to explain their huge salaries in light of the fact that the Gospel they preach urges all to give up their wealth and follow the Lord. But these mega-churches, as I have noted in the past, are really gathering places for folks who want to give the appearance of being religious while, during the rest of the week — if not the rest of the day — they go back to business as usual. It should not be thought for a moment that those churches have anything whatever to do with religion. They simply collect people once a week in huge buildings complete with coffee bars, lounge chairs, TVs, and bookstores selling the latest publication written by the man standing before them in flowing robes pretending to be a model of religious purity.

Indeed, the commonality among all religions is the notion of sacrifice. Those who seek to follow the path laid out for them by divine direction always, without exception, must sacrifice short-term pleasure and control their desires in order to do “the right thing,” the holy thing. The notion that one can simply “go to church” once a week and ipso facto be a religious person borders on the absurd. There is nothing whatever about attending church in, for example, the New Testament, though there is a great deal about the sacrifices required in order to do what is required to purify one’s soul.

But, like the churches themselves, the notion of the soul, along with the concern for what might happen to it after one’s body finally gives up, are passé. That’s yesterday’s news. Today, it’s all about growing the numbers of communicants and making sure they are told what they want to hear and not required to do what they might find demanding. Talk about sacrifice would result in wholesale exiting of the congregation in order to find a more appealing church to attend of a Sunday. I know of a specific case in which a large portion of a congregation left a particular church because the leaders had decided that it was acceptable to hire homosexual preachers. Now, the fact that the number of homosexual preachers can probably be counted on one hand, it was regarded, nevertheless, as a matter of “principle.” That is, it was grounds for rejection of a doctrine that is consistent with the love preached in the Gospels, because those retreating members regarded that doctrine as unacceptable. Today it’s not about what others demand of us, it’s about what we demand of ourselves. And that seldom, if ever, requires any sacrifice whatever.

Thus the crumbling and abandoned churches. Nietzsche was right: God is dead. We don’t need Him any more. We’ve got Google.

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.

 

 

The Cat In The Room

In a comment on a previous post I was trying to make myself understood by my good friend Dana about the various colors in ethics — black, white, and gray. In doing so I came to realize that I could be clearer about where I stand on the issue. And where I stand is not where many others stand, so it behooves me to make my position clear in case it might be close to the truth, as I like to think it is. The issue surrounds the question of whether there is a right and wrong in ethics.

The prevailing opinion as late as the medieval period was that there is a clear difference between the two, an absolute right and an absolute wrong. The Church, of course, knew the difference and if men and women were in a moral quandary they would simply ask the priest. And if he didn’t know he would refer to Church dogma. I think there are echoes of that conviction among church-goers today who still ask their parish priest or parson for advice when facing a moral dilemma. Many, however, came to regard this black/white position in ethics as leading straight to intolerance and a host of atrocities all in the name of ethical certainty. And it did. So for the most part the view of absolute right and absolute wrong has been tossed aside along with the Ptolemaic hypothesis about the neat arrangement of our finite universe. We are now living in a relativistic age and we tend to think that when it comes to ethics, at the very least, it is all a matter of opinion.

What I have tried to do is to carve out a middle ground between the two views, to insist that there is an absolute right and an absolute wrong — but we don’t know it absolutely. It is this last proviso that keeps us from the intolerance and even arrogance that often came with the supposed certainty that one was right about which side God was on in a war, for example, or whether heretics should be burned alive in an auto-da-fé. We pride ourselves on being more tolerant and, in the name of tolerance, ask the question “who’s to say?” when it comes to ethics. We then end up with a mishmash of conflicting opinions that cannot possibly all be correct. But I am convinced that this view leads us away from dialogue and the search for answers when it comes to ethical issues — especially since so many people are convinced there is no answer. Let me propose an analogy — which will appeal to Dana. He’s a poet.

The search for the right answer in ethics is like searching for a black cat in a dark room with a blindfold on. I insist that there is a cat in the room — somewhere — whereas the prevailing view is that since no one seems to know where the cat is he isn’t there at all. It’s just your opinion and mine: there’s really no cat. My conviction that there is a cat in the room rests on the fact that, in ethics, we have discovered a number of clear truths that are universally agreed upon, even though it has taken a struggle over many years (and even wars) to reach agreement. I speak about the evils of slavery and human sacrifice, for example, and the conviction that all persons have rights that ought to be respected, regardless of the circumstances. We know now that we were wrong for lo those many centuries to deny women the rights that men took for granted. We also know that in a democracy the vote should be allowed to all who are of age and must not be restricted to men with property. In fact, one could even argue that over the years there has been something akin to moral progress — for all our stupidity and determination to reduce ethics to a wrestling match. It appears that when men and women put their heads together and think things through they sometimes (rarely?) find the black cat in the dark room — despite the fact that their blindfold frustrates them and makes things extremely difficult and even painful at times.

The fact is that it is very difficult indeed to continue to search for that elusive cat. And this is why so many people simply give up and insist that it’s all a matter of opinion. We have become intellectually lazy. We prefer to save ourselves a passel of work and the difficult thinking we have decided is just not worth the effort. So many of us throw up our arms and ask “who’s to say?” It saves us the trouble of opening our minds and sifting through whatever evidence there is, scrutinizing arguments, and trying to reach even tentative conclusions. We prefer to think there is no cat. But I am convinced there is. We have held it from time to time and that assures me that we might get ahold of the cat every now and again, even briefly. There are answers to ethical dilemmas. We just have to work hard to find them and most often, because we are human, we must be content with reasonable suppositions and tentative conclusions though, at times, certain ethical truths are clear as crystal: what the Nazis did to the Jews was wrong by any standards one chooses to evoke. Now there’s a black cat if there ever was one!