Tuesday, December 22, 2009
The Split. And Why It Matters.
THE WISDOM OF (PLUMP, CUTE) BABES. Sometimes, politics and religion converge. That's what's happening with me now, and I'm not handling it well. Let's set the scene. Here's a NYT essay by the new enfant terrible of the conservative elitist class, Ross Douthat. I apologize for pushing the 'fair usage' practice by borrowing the whole thing, but my defense is that in this case 'the whole thing' is nothing more than the posing of an incredibly important question:
Heaven and Nature
It’s fitting that James Cameron’s “Avatar” arrived in theaters at Christmastime. Like the holiday season itself, the science fiction epic is a crass embodiment of capitalistic excess wrapped around a deeply felt religious message. It’s at once the blockbuster to end all blockbusters, and the Gospel According to James.
But not the Christian Gospel. Instead, “Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.
In Cameron’s sci-fi universe, this communion is embodied by the blue-skinned, enviably slender Na’Vi, an alien race whose idyllic existence on the planet Pandora is threatened by rapacious human invaders. The Na’Vi are saved by the movie’s hero, a turncoat Marine, but they’re also saved by their faith in Eywa, the “All Mother,” described variously as a network of energy and the sum total of every living thing.
If this narrative arc sounds familiar, that’s because pantheism has been Hollywood’s religion of choice for a generation now. It’s the truth that Kevin Costner discovered when he went dancing with wolves. It’s the metaphysic woven through Disney cartoons like “The Lion King” and “Pocahontas.” And it’s the dogma of George Lucas’s Jedi, whose mystical Force “surrounds us, penetrates us, and binds the galaxy together.”
Hollywood keeps returning to these themes because millions of Americans respond favorably to them. From Deepak Chopra to Eckhart Tolle, the “religion and inspiration” section in your local bookstore is crowded with titles pushing a pantheistic message. A recent Pew Forum report on how Americans mix and match theology found that many self-professed Christians hold beliefs about the “spiritual energy” of trees and mountains that would fit right in among the indigo-tinted Na’Vi.
As usual, Alexis de Tocqueville saw it coming. The American belief in the essential unity of all mankind, Tocqueville wrote in the 1830s, leads us to collapse distinctions at every level of creation. “Not content with the discovery that there is nothing in the world but a creation and a Creator,” he suggested, democratic man “seeks to expand and simplify his conception by including God and the universe in one great whole.”
Today there are other forces that expand pantheism’s American appeal. We pine for what we’ve left behind, and divinizing the natural world is an obvious way to express unease about our hyper-technological society. The threat of global warming, meanwhile, has lent the cult of Nature qualities that every successful religion needs — a crusading spirit, a rigorous set of ‘thou shalt nots,” and a piping-hot apocalypse.
At the same time, pantheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.
Indeed, it represents a form of religion that even atheists can support. Richard Dawkins has called pantheism “a sexed-up atheism.” (He means that as a compliment.) Sam Harris concluded his polemic “The End of Faith” by rhapsodizing about the mystical experiences available from immersion in “the roiling mystery of the world.” Citing Albert Einstein’s expression of religious awe at the “beauty and sublimity” of the universe, Dawkins allows, “In this sense I too am religious.”
The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.
Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.
This is an agonized position, and if there’s no escape upward — or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it — a deeply tragic one.
Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago.
But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.
I don't mean to demean Douthat. Putting the right question is a spectacular feat if you can do it in a single op-ed column. Answering that question is everyone's individual responsibility, not Douthat's. His last four paragraphs frame an existential crisis for anyone who's paying attention. For those of us who have significant parts of our personal identities bound up with our citizenship as Americans, the current political situation is also an existential crisis.
Have you wondered why your response to the Obama administration is so severe that it impinges on your personal life? This is why. For me, I must admit, it has amounted to panic. Because I know what is at stake.
Call it a perfect storm of assaults on faith. I cannot do the things, physically, I once did. When I shoveled snow the other day, I thought I was going to die. For real. I hid it from my wife but the dogs were concerned. They surged around me as I sat gasping for breath. I pushed them away. I push everyone away. Even my wife and closest friends. Especially my wife and closest friends.
Yes, I had the mid-life crisis the MSM convinced me I would experience. Back when I turned forty. But that pales in comparison to the end-of-life crisis you experience when you confront the fact that you are growing old and, worse than that, frail. It's easy to beat a mid-life crisis. You buy a Harley. It's not so easy to beat the end-of-life crisis. You look to philosophy, religion, family, country, humanity itself for a context that makes sense of your life and its inevitable approaching end.
For many, family is enough. Which is good. If you have it, embed yourself in it. It is its own kind of salvation. But some of us don't. Some of us have only the illusion of family, blood relations of spouses whom we love fiercely but know to a certainty regard us as bit players on the stage of births, baptisms, Thanksgivings and other holiday dramas. There will be attendees at our funerals, but only because they are honoring someone else they care about more.
Which is fine. The way of things. There are other relationships. I have had a life-long relationship with God, specifically Jesus Christ. I thought it was a unique relationship. I thought if I did His work, in my own particular way, He would wink at my manifold sins. But my sins are still sins. And I also thought, for way too many years, that my not quite believing in Him was somehow (roughly) analogous to Him not expressly condemning me. Talk about your hubris.
But I am still a Christian. If not blindly at least philosophically, historically, and ritually. And I'm an American. These two, however qualified, used to be more or less synonymous. I was also a rational being, convinced that being part of the Long March Toward a Better Life Through Science and Other Forms of Educated Thinking would count for something at the, uh, end. You see, I also knew that being a Christian meant that you were also a participant in the LMTBLTSOFET that bound me up with the brotherhood of American exceptionalism.
But here, toward the end of my life, I have become, suddenly, a pariah. Friends turned on me for things I said here. I needed my country to sustain me in my beliefs. I knew that the Christianity-based U.S. Constitution had been a force for good in the world, which was part of my faith, such as it was, in the gospels. Have I mentioned the word 'frail'? I needed my country to bolster my religious faith.
And then came Obama. Not his fault, I guess. Back in 1999 I heard my own dad tell me, in the full knowledge of his own imminent death from cancer, that the country he had fought for no longer existed. Those of you who have read this blog all these years know that I rejected his angry, dying dismissal. Still do. BUT...
Even he never anticipated that a president of the United States would take the position that human existence was somehow wrong in the scheme of things. Which, no matter how you boil it down, is the position -- nihilist in the extreme -- of the supposed savants of western civilization. Note that the Chinese exhibit no such enlightenment. That's why they'll own the 21st century. Problem is, I don't want China to own any century. Especially one I'm living or dying in. Which means it's time for me to die. And I'm having trouble with that idea. My wife saved me from dying. Now she can't understand why a mere Obama is undoing her good work. She blames me. All I can do is apologize. And try to explain that it's bigger than anything she or I can control.
The Split. Yeah. Have you ever had the feeling that people are arguing about matters YOU settled long ago? I do. Every day. (Book of Andrew, Book of ASSUMPTIONS.) What is with this idiotic notion that Nature is good and Mankind is bad? Fact is, Nature is cruel, even demonstrably vicious, and Mankind is, uh, more kind than not. That's why Mankind has prospered and proliferated. DUH. Consider this: Christianity is the biggest ever departure from Nature. Its central premise is that we all matter. Odd. Wrong? Perhaps. But absolutely right in human terms. It has led to the extension of human thought, lifespans, and a kind of beauty and accomplishment no other culture has ever dreamed of. No other kind of human philosophy has produced such sheer gorgeousness. Now we are being asked to regard ourselves as vile, a scientifically verifiable pollution on the face of the earth, something akin to the AIDS virus. The President of the United States subscribes to this view. Let me repeat that. The President of the United States subscribes to this view.
While I am struggling on matters of faith, patriotism, and survival. My response? Fuck him and the horse he rode in on. The Split does matter. Not just because I'm going to die, but because we all know we're going to die and we all still care about what happens after Human religion is by definition the Split with Nature, the proof that we are better than lions, hyenas, wolves, and black mambas. Most of us live every day with the proof -- the species that remade themselves just for the privilege of living with us and acquired a moral sense along the way -- dogs. Now we're on the "precipice" of taking better care of our dogs than ourselves. It's called ObamaCare.
Obama has made me a monster. I confess it. I thought I was part of a national tradition that would move from strength to strength regardless of my own personal failings. I was wrong. I thought Jesus Christ was strong enough to withstand both the dashboard totemism of the fundamentalists and the politically correct nonsense of the Catholics and Episcopalians. I was wrong. I thought I could soldier through my doubts and fears -- Obama's deliberate assault on my country and its freedoms -- without anyone knowing the depths of my despair. I was wrong.
But -- and here's where I appeal to my brethren -- how do you explain to loved ones that "mere" politics can be the driver of your distance from "Christmas spirit" and threaten everyone else's enjoyment of the season?
Let me be clear about what I'm not saying. I'm not blaming it on Obama. I'm talking about my own loss of family and lack of faith. I have failed in every way possible. The Obama adminstration found all those cracks and turned them into the personal disaster I now face.
I AM sorry. I am also, truly, in despair. I love my wife, I love my (her) family, I love my country, and I'm not serving any of them at the moment. That's the definition of my despair.
UPDATE. Thanks to Eduardo. Psalm 31:
10 For my life is spent with grief,
and my years with sighing:
my strength faileth because of mine iniquity,
and my bones are consumed.
11 I was a reproach among all mine enemies,
but especially among my neighbors,
and a fear to mine acquaintance:
they that did see me without fled from me.
12 I am forgotten as a dead man out of mind:
I am like a broken vessel.
13 For I have heard the slander of many:
fear was on every side:
while they took counsel together
Thanks to others, too. It does all matter...