Friday, February 7, 2014
Noah’s Ark, Edward Hicks, 1846
DARWIN, ONCE MEANT FOR THE CLERGY,
IMAGINES HIS SERMON ON NOAH
Too late, dear brethren, too late to believe
there never was a rainbow before the Flood –
or that the ark, three hundred cubits long,
could contain millions of species.
I won’t belabor the ark’s humble door
vis-à-vis a giraffe,
the whine of the two thousand
species of mosquito.
And the animals of the then-unknown
Australia and the New World?
Did they plunge into distant oceans,
two and two of all flesh,
and every thing that creepeth on the earth –
snails and slugs slithering for centuries.
As iron-dark clouds barred heaven,
did gorillas and polar bears parade
through a mud-brick Mesopotamian village?
And our fabled forefather, when the Lord
shut the door of the ark,
was six hundred years old.
The less believable it is,
the more enchanting it is.
Listen how tenderly it is said, But the dove
found no rest for the sole of her foot . . .
then he put forth his hand, and took her,
and pulled her in unto him into the ark –
The new theologians tell us the myth
is not even Hebrew, but primeval:
purification of the world by water.
Purification by science
is another Deluge.
Evolution is not crowned with a rainbow.
Brethren, I do not speak of Truth –
I offer evidence. I too carry
a heavy church in my heart.
The ship I sailed on for five years
was a kind of ark – I and Noah
on a long, crowded journey,
he with his salvaged animals,
I with my specimens in jars.
Brethren, behold the rainbow and rejoice
in the frail moment when the dove
alighted with a glistening olive leaf –
but how can we forget
the faces of the drowned –
Now the windows of heaven are shut;
all we have is stories.
Perhaps a future humanity will evolve
a kinder God, without wrath.
Today let us honor our father Noah,
drifting with the saved
seed of life toward Ararat.
~ Oriana © 2014
The problems with the traditional Judeo-Christian worldview did not begin with Darwin. As the Episcopalian Bishop Shelby Spong points out in his Why Christianity Must Change or Die, and as most educated people realize, the Copernican idea that the earth orbited the sun, combined with Galileo’s astronomical observations using the telescope (which showed, among many other wonders, that the moon had a crater-scarred landscape rather than being a perfectly smooth sphere -- oh no, an imperfection in a celestial body!), displaced the earth from the center of the universe.
If the whole universe was created with us in mind, as the bible implied, so that we could worship the creator, then obviously the earth should not be just another planet orbiting the sun. Later astronomers created even more trouble, discovering that the sun was a rather average star in a provincial corner of our galaxy. And the cosmic distances were quite troubling. In modern times someone calculated that if Jesus moved with the speed of light (which is not possible, but let’s imagine), given the 2000 years since the Ascension, he still hasn’t left the galaxy.
(Sophisticated Reader, I realize that an answer to this is: let’s not be literal, only metaphorical. But the argument that in the past people used to read the bible in a metaphorical way and only in modern times we slid into weak-minded literalism doesn’t convince me. I just don’t see a medieval peasant grasping the Ascension as a metaphor for spiritual development, while we moderns devolved to the mentality of kindergarten.)
Galileo’s drawing of the moon
Darwin created a worse problem by far, and not only by making man a highly evolved animal with a more developed brain. Far more damaging was the very concept of evolution, soon adopted by other fields of knowledge. Thus, the earth evolved; the whole universe evolved and was still evolving. At the human level, cultures evolved and continues to evolve at an amazingly accelerated pace. Technology and knowledge have evolved. Art has evolved (some would say that starting with Impressionism, it devolved).
Religions too evolved and may now be dying -- or, if not, it will eventually be greatly transformed (into something more benign, we hope). The very concept of god evolved -- from a tribal warrior deity, the “Lord of Hosts” who fought against the enemies of his tiny chosen nation, to the sole and absolute ruler of the whole universe, the “king of kings” (absolute monarchy being dominant at the time; the sacred scriptures of humanity were written in the era of kings and emperors and warlords).
As Nietzsche observed, it’s not necessary to argue about the existence of god; it’s enough just to trace the evolution of the concept.
Christ Tzar, a Russian icon, 1690
THE UNEMPLOYED GOD
Bishop Spong notes that the Christian churches resisted Darwin with vigor, but the pre-Reformation ecclesiastical power had already been broken, and the Church’s ability to threaten Darwin with execution as a heretic no longer existed. Besides, truth can never be deterred for long just because it is inconvenient. Spong observes that if man was an animal, then the concept of the soul and the afterlife, traditionally denied to animals, became questionable. Some have tried to cope with this by bestowing soul and afterlife on animals, especially dogs and cats, and maybe horses. Given their intelligence, maybe also elephants and dolphins. But where do we stop? Are frogs and fishes to be denied? (Milosz wanted even the insects to enjoy resurrection.)
Spong quotes Michael Goulder, an Episcopalian priest who renounced priesthood when he decided that the god of the past “no longer had any real work to do”:
The tasks assigned to this God by traditional wisdom, he suggested, have been slowly but surely stripped from the divine side. This God no longer fights wars and defeats enemies. This God no longer chooses a special people and works through them. This God no longer sends the storms, heals the sick, spares the dying, or even judges the sinner. This God no longer rewards goodness and punishes evil. Yet this virtually unemployed deity is still the primary object and substance of the Christian Church’s faith.
The theistic God has no work to do. The power once assigned to this God is now explained in countless other ways. The theistic God is all but unemployed. . . . If there is no other possible understanding of God, then surely God has died.
Religion and personal and autobiographical. The theist deity always reflected the particular theologian, Spong maintains: “The fact is that the God of Thomas Aquinas looked and acted very much like Thomas Aquinas.”
Aquinas by Carlo Crivelli, 1467
But what about the emotional need for a protective deity, a parent in the sky? Even if science shows that god is not necessary for the function of the universe, it can’t do away with people’s longing for “invisible support.” This is where Spong is at his most interesting. He quotes an ancient Hebrew prophet:
With what shall I come before the Lord and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will be Lord be pleased with thousands of rams; with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul? Mica 6:6-7
From the historical point of view, this is an interesting window on what used to constitute worship. But from where we stand, isn’t this simply disgusting?
Could it be that some people still don’t realize how archaic the bible is -- like all “holy scriptures,” a product of its times? Maybe they realize, but still cling to religion in the hope of emotional security.
Dead ideas continue to slow down our development. Many are afraid that the light of reason would force them to drop their security blanket. In Act 2 of Ghosts, Ibsen wrote:
I almost think we’re all of us Ghosts. ... It's not only what we have invited from our father and mother that walks in us. It's all sorts of dead ideas, and lifeless old beliefs, and so forth. They have no vitality, but they cling to us all the same, and we can’t get rid of them. Whenever I take up a newspaper, I seem to see Ghosts gliding between the lines. There must be Ghosts all the country over, as thick as the sand of the sea. And then we are, one and all, so pitifully afraid of the light.
FREUD’S “THE FUTURE OF AN ILLUSION”
In Judaism, god is “the Lord.” In Christianity he becomes “our father.” This family analogy attracted the attention of Sigmund Freud, who duly noted the infantile character of much of the language of Christianity.
In his 1927 volume, The Future of an Illusion, Freud argued that humans were traumatized by the knowledge of their mortality. A psychological coping mechanism was needed. Spong writes:
Religion, Freud contended, was the coping mechanism, the human response to the trauma of self-consciousness, and it was designed above all to keep hysteria under control and to manage for these self-conscious creatures the shock of existence.
For Freud, the essence of an illusion is that it springs from a wish. We wish to be immortal the way a poor girl wishes to marry a prince. Man feels helpless, and thus wishes for an all-powerful protector(s). In Freud’s words: “The gods retain the threefold task: they must exorcise the terrors of nature, they must reconcile men to the cruelty of Fate, particularly as it is shown in death, and they must compensate them for the sufferings and privations which a civilized life in common has imposed on them.”
Nietzsche said that religion is “not wanting to know the truth.” And because religion is not a search for truth, but rather a part of a complex emotional defense system, it does not tolerate open debate and dissent. Its truths are “revealed” and thus can’t be questioned. And the hysteria that religion was meant to contain reveals itself in irrational hostility when dissent is encountered. I remember, a few months after I stopped going to church the priest who was shouting at me, sweating and red in the face, his black robe billowing in the spring wind; right in the middle of the sidewalk of one of the busiest streets in Warsaw, he was shouting at a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl. I now feel sorry for the man, so threatened by a young girl’s disbelief.
Nevertheless, there are those who see the irrationality of religion as its greatest strength. Otherwise, the collective power of the human intellect would have disposed of it long ago. At his most optimistic, Freud maintained that the voice of the intellect is soft, but it will not rest until it’s been heard.
RILKE: WE ARE BUILDING GOD
In 1900, when Rilke was twenty-five, he wrote in his diary:
There were times, earlier, when I believed: he [god] is in the wind, but for the most part I didn’t experience him as a unified personality at all. I knew only aspects of god. And many of those aspects were horrifying. For even death was only a component of his being. And he seemed to me unjust in the extreme. He tolerated unspeakable things, permitted cruelty and grief, and was massively indifferent . . .
I argued on his behalf. That his shortcomings, his injustice, and the deficiencies of his power were all matters of development. That he is not finished yet. When was there time for him to have become?
GOD IS NOT FINISHED YET. I can almost go along with it.
God in the wind? It’s possible that Rilke refers to the Hebrew ruach, which literally means wind, but came to be interpreted as the breath (or spirit) of god. Originally, the same word meant wind and spirit, hinting at archaic animism: wind as a supernatural element, the breath of god. In Slavic languages the word for spirit is related to the word for breath, and inspire used to mean both “inhale” and “blow into” or “breathe into.”
The more interesting part is the positing of god’s incomplete consciousness, also pointed out by Jung in Answer to Job. By developing our consciousness, we are helping god become more conscious, more ethical. God is a projection of human ideals, but in some mysterious way a real being as well. Thanks to human progress, god is in a constant process of becoming. We are building god.
This is called Process Theology. (Are there any Process Theologians in the trenches?)
An abandoned locomotive in a former Siberian gulag
WE ARE NOT BUILDING GOD; WE ARE BUILDING HUMANITY
It’s not god’s consciousness that needs fuller development; it’s the collective human psyche. We are coming closer and closer to realizing how amazing it is to be human. And we are beginning to acknowledge that we are interconnected with other humans, and with all of life.
In The Sirens of Titan, one of my favorite science-fiction novels, Kurt Vonnegut described the Church of God the Utterly Indifferent. But obviously we don’t want an indifferent god, even though logically that seems to be the only possible deity. Fortunately concern for us exists: we receive it from other human beings. It makes sense to be kind and cultivate friendships.
(Disappointed Reader: I hear you saying: “other human beings” -- is that all? Isn’t it time we came to hold human beings in higher esteem? Because, aside from dogs, that’s our only source of love and help.)
CAN WE REALLY IMAGINE A NON-THEIST GOD?
Spong and many others who want to salvage the divine have suggested that god is not a being; it (this seems the appropriate pronoun) is some transcendent force field, intelligent cosmic energy, or even the “Ground of Being.” Spong prefers the “Ground of Being.” We exist in god as fish live in water, but in a more mysterious way than can be expressed.
Alas, this is so abstract that it makes no sense to me. It seems like desperate clinging to the concept of god when we don’t need this hypothesis. The universe simply IS. We ARE. We are a part of the universe, or, to make it sound more affectionate, we are the children of the universe. The universe itself is our “ground of being.” Isn’t that enough?
But what about the non-theistic religions of Buddhism and Taoism? They have become tremendously popular -- finally an alternative to a personal god, obviously created by man. Yet those who’ve traveled to East Asia claim that in practice Buddhism and Taoism are theistic and based in ritual and magic; only in pure doctrine can they be said not to be “pure” non-theism.
(I won’t get here into allegation of sex abuse in the Buddhist monasteries. But we do know that as soon as religion becomes institutionalized, it becomes corrupt.)
I am selectively attracted to the Eastern wisdom. I see “being posthumous” as a state of bliss. To me, being posthumous means that my life has already happened -- or at least the essence of that life: writing and teaching -- poems, publications, jobs, anything else that typically goes on a resumé -- as well as great love, dancing with the Prince etc. Now I can enjoy simply being. I don't need to prove anything, achieve anything. Nor am I waiting for the Prince. All that anguish is over.
It’s pretty much the Eastern wisdom, but with my own personal angle. Now I finally write for pleasure. Imagine! Writing for pleasure, without the torture of trying to publish. Until this stage, writing was a joy only when I was a beginner -- how amazing to have come full circle, though of course at a different level and even different kind of writing.
Actually someone upbraided me once: “You have a duty to publish! You have so much to say. The world needs to hear this. You can’t just write for your own pleasure!” -- not realizing that at the time I wasn’t writing for pleasure; I was writing to prove that I was not a failure, or at least not a TOTAL failure, even if I had little luck publishing.
Such ironies often happen in life: I gained an international audience (India! Saudi Arabia!) only when I started writing for pleasure (here I remember another person chiming in, when I emailed her I was starting my blog e-dress, “As long as you enjoy doing it; pleasure is the only thing you’ll ever get out of it.”) And it has indeed been an avalanche of pleasure! Not just the pleasure of writing, but also the pleasure of having an audience and getting feedback, and the pleasure of publishing on my own terms.
Arabian sand cat
CLIMBING A VERTICAL MOUNTAIN
Once -- many years before my “posthumous” insight -- I had a dream in which I was climbing an almost vertical mountain. I had the right technique: I knew that if I never rested and if I kept climbing quickly enough, I would not fall off the sheer wall with practically no foothold. To my left was my grandmother Veronika. I didn’t see her face, but I recognized her leather slippers. She was climbing the impossible steepness in parallel with me.
At the same time I could see a beautiful wide road with a pine forest on one side and the sea on the other (my memories of the Baltic). People were walking down that road. I strongly suspected -- in fact I knew! -- that the road led to the same place as the virtually impossible climb up the mountain, but I did not dare stop my struggle. When I was at the top, on the large plateau, I saw that the easy and beautiful road did indeed lead to the same place, and that’s how other people arrived there. Some in fact drove in in large cars! I assumed they had to be Americans.
When I told the dream to a friend, she asked what my grandmother and I had in common. I answered, “A lot of hardship in life.” The dream was transparent in its message. Still, it took me more than a decade to accept the idea that taking the beautiful and easy road was the right choice, rather than persisting in an agonizing effort, akin perhaps to “dying with honor.”
Compounding the problem was having grown up with the Catholic cult of suffering. Suffering was good for you. It was the way to heaven. I am not sure if anyone stated this to me in so many words, or if it was just a conclusion I drew based on reading the lives of the saints. Fortunately I never tried self-flagellating (one of my cousins did). But enough digression!
The point seems to have been by Eastern sages many centuries ago: stop striving and just be. Let happiness happen. The root of “happiness” is “hap” -- luck, or chance, or whatever happens.
In The Idiot, Dostoyevski asks, through the mouth of Prince Myshkin, “Can anyone be unhappy, really?” To the Prince, as to Dostoyevski, just to be alive was miraculous.
Cezanne Mt. Victoire
BORGES AND IMMORTALITY
Still, I’m quick to concede that Dostoyevski regarded the belief in immortality as a vital part of human culture. True, he was torn with doubt; on Tuesday morning he believed in god and the afterlife; by Wednesday he didn’t. But probably all would agree that the chief attraction of theistic religion is the promise of life everlasting.
Borges has an answer to this in what is perhaps his most extraordinary poem:
INSCRIPTION ON ANY TOMB
Let not the rash marble risk
garrulous breach of omnipotent oblivion,
in many words recalling
name, renown, events, birthplace.
All those glass beads are best left in the dark.
Let not the marble say what men may not.
The essentials of the dead man’s life --
the trembling hope,
the implacable miracle of pain,
the wonder of sensual delight --
will abide forever.
Blindly the willful soul asks for length of days
when its survival is assured by the lives of others.
You yourself are the embodied continuance
of those who did not live into your time
and others who will be (and are) your immortality on earth.
~ Jorge Luis Borges, tr. W.S. Merwin
Borges was such a “singular” man (I mean it in the sense of unusual, exceptional -- but the word insists on its most common meaning) that it’s striking how he doesn’t buy “individualism.” He does not insist on his “exceptionalism.” Simply because we are human, we are not isolated individuals; we are humanity. We pass as the water in the river passes, but the river remains.
This realization may have come to Borges in part from his life among books. He realized that his mind is a tapestry of the endless volumes he’s read, influences he’d absorbed. From there it’s only a step to seeing oneself as part of the larger human community across time, and of the human continuum.
His acceptance of the collective mind set Borges apart from those writers in his generation who insisted on the cult of the artist as completely separate and alienated. But Borges communed with great writers across time, and knew he was part of a continuum.
This is not to deny the uniqueness of each of us, something we bring to the universe only once. “There will never be another you.” In the Western culture in particular, everyone has had at least moments of feeling so different from others that loneliness threatens to overwhelm: no one really knows me, so how can they love the “real me.” Never mind that the “real me” is so elusive, so . . . unreal. Even our memories are not fully ours, but a collage of we absorbed in all kinds of ways, including books and movies.
If we were words, each person would be an oxymoron: a collective individual. A single individual has no meaning apart from his social context. As Christian Wiman said, “Experience means nothing if it does not mean beyond itself: we mean nothing unless and until our hard-won meanings are internalized and catalyzed within the lives of others.”
As Borges reminds us: others are and will be our immortality, here on earth.