Sunday, March 30, 2008

Fates of Our Fathers

Ciara Ní Tuama, my friend, concludes her "Poem to St. Patrick":

Oh Patrick/ I know your secret/ I know the violence of your past/ We all want comfort in our/ old age/ We all want our names/ to ring throughout history//

And you, converting your/ brothers, sisters, comrades/ in spirit,/ entreating them to betray/ the very lifebreath/ of their beliefs.//

Tell me, Patrick, /what heaven/ is really like.

I thought of her words when writing the past couple of days voluminously on Christopher Hitchens' fascinating farrago "god Is Not Great," especially as it's at her Irish house where I first saw it published-- perhaps in advance of its American appearance-- last summer. Hitchens for all his own prolixity, which may come with being so dauntingly educated and so habitual a journalist, managed to produce a work that encourages dialogue, invites response, and rewards reflection. The connection with the poem arises when I return for the third time in nearly as many days to mull over the problem that I find Freud's "The Future of an Illusion" tackles full on.

While Hitchens twice makes an aside to this 1927 work, he does not incorporate its findings as thoroughly as I judge he should have. He wants us to overcome our tendency to seek signs in wonders we attribute wrongly to the divine. Yet, if we as a species have tended to look up for answers rather than around us, how can such a groove be gotten out of? How climb out of a rut thousands of years trudged by our ancestors-- and most of us today despite our advanced technological knowledge? I noticed on AOL the other day that in a poll about evolution, while 71% or so were convinced, another 21% denied it and 7% weren't sure.

Even if science triumphed, we'd still need ministrating angels to soothe us, although perhaps we'd call them shrinks. The clerisy could vanish, but perhaps we'd escape into Huxley (whose forebear Thomas coined the term "agnosticism") for a daily dose of soma to cope. Still, we'd suffer pain and death and despair, and in a godless world, how could we learn to cope? After Hitchens' devoutly-to-be-wished Secular Enlightenment should emerge, say in sudden collapse of solid doctrine as unexpected as that of the quick implosion of the Iron Curtain)-- what would we turn to for solace? The late Arthur C. Clarke mused (a snarl that sounds like Hitchens): "if in a thousand years from now someone insists on a personal God, he'd be locked up in an asylum."

The whole question of "what then," as the radical faction in (recently reviewed by me here and on Amazon US) Hani Kunzru's "My Revolutions" also wonder, and can barely conceive of, if their overthrow of The Man would transpire, moves me to cogitate further. Comrade Anna in that novel shrugs and confides that whatever the New Society would look like, it'd have no place for her, and that its transformed lineaments would be wholly at the service of The People. She's barely able to escape abstraction, so fixated is she on destruction and contempt at her British early 1970s consumer wasteland.

Likewise, Hitchens leaves us encouraged by his stance for liberty but still with no real direction on where to seek it. I know he's more the agitator than the guide, the one who rouses up the troops over the trench rather than the field-marshal who keeps them from panicking once the enemy's blasts come to earth around the recruits. Certainly there'd be carpet bombing-- the terrorists often hoist icons and brandish verses taped to their weapons. How can a substantial yet still underwhelming minority of seculars advance when the forces of-- in Hitchens' opinion-- ignorance at worst and sloth at best-- constitute billions easily assembled into mobs by mad ministers or mullahs? Controlling tenure or the café won't win over the rest of the huddled masses. Given the culture wars of the past fifty years, the détente may have fitfully arrived in parts of Europe and North America, but elsewhere-- for both humanitarian and nefarious aims-- the control of power remains with organized religion allied more often with capitalism and superpowers than not (and the not as in Tibet's not heartening in the showdown of Most Favored Nation trade status vs. human rights and cultural genocide).

Like his fellow atheist Sam Harris, Hitchens remains confident that commonsense and facts will inevitably trump wishes and omens. Yet, what of those of us who remain skeptics of the assurances of confident nonbelievers as well as complacent believers? I'm not agreeing with Pascal; I share Hitchens' disdain for such casuistic hypocrisy, such hedging of eternal bets. Not to mention the many of us who waver depending on the day. A student asked me in class a few months ago if I believed in God, and my answer was exactly that.

And my definition of an apophatic divine presence, one more expressed as negation of what we know that One we can understand, one emanating as easily from the feminine Shekinah and the still small voice as from the thunder and the fire: Hitchens appears to have no patience for such flagging spirits or wavering souls as mine. His subtitle's "How Religion Poisons Everything," and this brooks no contradictions. God's not Anselm's Being greater than which we cannot conceive, for can we not imagine dragons? Our power of conjuration mentally does not produce from our sleep of reason such monsters--to paraphrase Goya.

John Allen Paulos in his own addition to the atheist canon recently employed the ontological proof and simply substituted nature for God; scientists know suppose what medieval canons never could have imagined, that the universe may expand and contract forever. Each immeasurable Big Bang, each eon an eruption, as with the Buddhist rebirth of a life, may cancel all memory of the previous incarnation. Even in the presence of a pre-existing cosmos, ineradicable background radiation and tiny particles may spin about endlessly and without cause or origin, contradicting the empirical basis that earlier people understandably--in the days before Heisenberg, Einstein, and Hubble-- insisted had to exist first.

Such is the nature of progress in that Enlightenment tradition which Hitchens extends. But, Hitchens leaves too little room for doubt, for agnostics, and for shades of grey. Science opens itself to its own disproof in a manner that faith cannot, true. But, can we find hope in such cold certainties or elegantly expressed theorems? The universe of minus -212 Kelvin's a chilly place to find our own purpose, that of supernovas and silent death seen above from millions of light-years ago in the glimpse of a distant flash. In our warming bubble within absolute zero and background radiation, can we weaker humans endure without everlasting dreams coming true? This is why Hitchens leaves me hesitant. Yet, as Freud's invention of a Socratic critic against his own psychoanalytic argument shows, the need for people to cling to a comforting figure, an explanation for death, and an inspiration that escapes the mundane--figuratively and literally-- persists within us.

Our higher understanding agrees with Freud's illusion: God as Father-figure whom we look to as we cringe and grovel, wag our tail and beg for favors. "The gods retain the threefold task: they must exorcize 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." (pg. 19) This does make me wish Freud's wearily reductive model had room for the maternal, but I suppose that's beyond this post.

Yet, his self-included critic wonders what never occurs to Hitchens. What of the cultural enrichment of religious ideas, the splendor of so much of its culture, the healing powers emanating from its ethical precepts, the wisdom from its mystical prayers, or the inspiration of its example? Scanning the various scriptures, the chaff burdens the occasional glint of wheat. Hitchens substitutes all of these religious treasures with a simple philosophical slice of Occam's Razor. The cut may go deep and feel deadly, but the healing inoculation will make us thank the doctor we briefly may curse.

Now, as one who a while back put this Razor-sharp second medieval concept as its own blog key term, I admire this venerable tool of inquiry. Yet, not all of us want to shear off our locks, despite the expense, care, or inutility of our hair (or for me graying beard to boot). We admit the hassle, but we like the look. Same perhaps with the trappings of religion, as belief for many, and as more than relics for many more, even many secular folks.

I think of Europe's soaring yet echoing cathedrals ossifying into attractions to which we charge admission for their upkeep. No longer do but a few worshippers fill the nave of York Minster, which costs seven pounds now to enter. Yes, such magnificent monuments demand our attention as our cultural patrimony. But, taking the conclusions of Hitchens and continuing with them, it's as if they're on the same level as the Tate. Meanwhile, mosques burst to full throughout Western Europe, and megachurches turn into uneasy combinations of the moneychangers and the Temple throughout America. The pace of secularization's unsteady: advancing in Hitchens' homeland among post-Christians abandoning as he did the state Church, but certainly opposed by a harsher regimen imposed by those who'd place shariah within a special status legally in France, Turkey, or Britain.

Also, what of needy children? What do I teach my sons about their three-thousand year old patrimony? Jewish versions proverbially multiply as many as Jews themselves about how to act as one of their maternal tribe. Meanwhile, on my side, we have the trick of giving them a pride in their Irish heritage without the usual concomitant baggage or main course, depending on your metaphor, of heavy Catholicism.

And this leads me back in typically Celtic recursive spin and spiralling shape, to Ciara's lines. For, I recalled when musing about Hitchens my own early realization that I sympathized with the displaced gods and goddesses, and the upended beliefs of the ancient Irish, more than the Christian missionaries who replaced or distorted or conflated their customary sacred rivers or local lore into their rigid apostolic successions and papal strictures. This led gradually to an undermining of my own faith, as I understood-- and felt at a distance within my soul-- the displacement of ancestral bonds, the pain of exile, and the anguish of doubt.

I still have not shaken off such emotions, and at this stage in my life may never will. They encouraged within me what cautious Freud understands perhaps more than eager Hitchens: the faith of our fathers lodges in our bones, and is as ineradicable from our learning to walk, for many of us less confident of our stance than Hitchens. While a few can throw off their training wheels and learn to run quickly, many of us more hobbled by our upbringing hesitate no matter how tall we grow. And this search for meaning leads many good people still to faith. It draws others in the same sincerity away from certain belief.

Hitchens simply asks that he be freed to find his own unbound gait, and not be led by obscurantists. He may not know it all, but he'd reckon that in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man's king. He also asks us to allow the same freedom for all we know. Others can put on their reins even though we may show them they can trot faster without them; others may need such guidance. And, some learn to love their crutch. I don't think even Hitchens remains so bold as to take away the lash with which many goad themselves by disciplines physical and spiritual. All he expects is that rational people can tell the their version of the facts.

As the doubting clerical poet R.S. Thomas suggested: "This is my truth; now tell me yours." And we may wait another millennium at least for the revelation, from the cancer cell or our strands of DNA. As Freud's critic hinted, it may be far longer than even Clarke's ten centuries hence for many of our progeny to learn how to stand on their own two tottering feet beneath a cosmic sky. Recall Dylan Thomas: "starless and bible-black."

Tate Gallery Search Image: Henry Moore, 1966-68:
"Crowd Looking at a Tied-up Object."

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