Monday, December 28, 2009

Credo quia absurdum?


What do I believe? I was asked this after a slew of reviews. As a scholar I tend to analyze and cite, rather than expound on my personal credo.

Tertullian, an early Christian philosopher, is often wrongly cited; "Credo quia absurdum is, of course, a misquote. Tertullian's words are credibile est, quia ineptum est (De carne Christi 5.4)." Robert Sider argues this in "Credo Quia Absurdum?". But I promised no footnotes, so here I cannot get past my own blog entry's title's verification. My training runs deep.

And that's the point. It's hard for an academically trained type; Tertullian or me, we face the same challenge. It's credible because it's inept, that is, defying belief. The absurd becomes the basis for our faith, our attribution to a force beyond our reason or understanding that we then trust, that we accept as worthy of our confidence as the concrete evidence that surrounds us.

My melange of denominated tendencies begins with cradle Catholicism from an Irish-American upbringing still strict enough to have imprinted itself upon me deeply despite a post-Vatican II childhood, as the very first generation who came of age after the Latin Mass and Baltimore Catechism (although my parents duly bought me a copy whose illustrations I still recall vividly). By college, I had already begun drifting away, although difficulties during grad school brought me into an ambivalent dance of moving closer and then stepping back from the Church. By the time my wife and I established our relationship, I'd begun shifting first through Eastern Catholicism-- for its theological perception of God as emanations we could grasp but not His essence intrigued me-- and then, intersecting with our realization that a liberal form of Judaism might allow us a shared space within which to raise a family, into the faith that she was claimed by as a member even if she grew up with but a shaky grasp of its tenets.

For a while, this space supported us. Both parental pairs regarded by mixed bemusement or subtle hostility our decision. But, as my wife noted in a conversation with a friend that I half-overheard about a year ago, ultimately a more dogmatic approach "didn't take" with our kids and us. We tend, and I probably bear the most credit or blame, towards skepticism. If I was not around I reckon my wife and our sons would have grown up firmer in their Judaism, but who knows? My dissenting mindset mixes with theirs and it half-formed them, and half-differs from hers.

We live in an environment where hardly any of their classmates from the JCC had two Jewish parents, and while many of their classmates continue to be my sons' friends-- as had been predicted by their principal the first day we visited the Silverlake-Los Feliz JCC-- these diverse boys and girls reflect the reality of a diverse Los Angeles outside the enclaves in the Valley or Westside where one can surround one's family with camps, schools, shul, and friends who stick to a Jewish way of life.

Anyone thinking that "Yiddishkeit" or delis or comedy alone can keep a Jewish heart alive should note "Seinfeld" or "Curb Your Enthusiasm" as portents-- not only of their creators' wishes to "pass" in Hollywood, but of a doddering nod to trust in schtick and stand-up as reliable indicators of Jewish identity. Contrast this with assimilation, intermarriage and compromise that American Jews now accept, outside of the Orthodox, as inevitable. Watch a Judd Apatow film where the schlub desires the blonde; that director's wife mirrors what we see projected. Conversion and blended families, secularization and modification, will mark whatever Judaism marks my sons, with their surnames, as a different breed if from the same tribe within. This transformation will alter whomever chooses to identify with Judaism in a diasporic community far far different than any other in the three-thousand years of the people's history.

I never spoke more than a few sentences to a Jewish classmate until I entered my M.A. program. I knew nearly no Protestants, until then, also. Just as I was raised in a totally Catholic milieu, who can say if such an immersion will ensure continuity in a nation where 44% of us "switch" from our childhood or ancestral faith, or lack of, nowadays? Soon, you will, for the first time in a long time, likely not "tell" who's a Jew by their name, their appearance, or at least part of their genealogy. New sitcoms may be pitched on just such a premise; "Bridget Loves Bernie" no longer as instant joke?

Of course, Catholics have no worries about losing numbers, while Jews do. This places on us a low-level guilt, for we wonder if we're betraying a promise, an obligation laid on us by my choice to follow my wife into Judaism, and our commitment to guide our sons. Yet, and this sums up my own attitude, I argue that imposing rigidity will not lock them into a "Torah-true" path anyway. It may drive them towards a desperate flight from a faith or a practice. I'd rather sleep more soundly knowing they've been exposed to what they are within Judaism, that they have the basic orientation inside upon which they may test moral and spiritual guidance, and they have a confidence that they can continue to seek their fulfillment.

My wife blogs often about her own struggles with her soul's direction, within an attenuated ancestral allegiance that attracts her often but also daunts her. Writing the past year to three Jewish prisoners, all of whom grew up in a similar Californian setting where no ties to the ancient practices strongly bound their families to the life they'd left behind in moving here, she's had to confront her own questions. Meanwhile, she responds to theirs about a faith that it turns out they all clutch tiny fragments of, as they try to fit their pieces within the puzzle.

For me, I stand at more of a distance from any genetic bond. What's pulled me in, of course, has been my Irish identification. Catholicism by definition enters this, even if one is a Protestant (or in one case we know, a beloved, cranky, Belfast-bred Jew). Yet, so does the Celtic, and then pagan, foundation, if one so deep and so broken by 1500 years post-Patrick that (as I've written lately) one can dimly glimpse and not grab securely what remains after so long a Christian overshadow.

They say the Celts did not believe so much in omnipotent gods but more powerful humans who, euhemerized (great word), were transformed into deities. The supernatural intervention beloved of a "deus ex machina" Greek's frequently lacking in the Ulster Cycle. Heaven's downplayed, but life's fleeting. I must have cottoned on to this early in my childhood reading, somehow. I'd enter the little of nature I could and there I'd sense a presence lacking in a man-made sanctuary-- especially after Vatican II denuded so many altars and snuffed out their candles. Stars still comfort and terrify me equally, or awe-fully. If you ask me I might prevaricate as a Ph.D., but inside, I can attest that I feel an energy latent, if not for rational me manifested fully due to my intellectual caution, within creation.

I looked up "panentheistic" to check my recall of this term the other day. A pantheist finds "God is nature." A panentheist holds that "God is in the Whole." A subtle distinction, but the point being that the latter concept allows a Whole beyond a deity (or deities) manifested within only the organic or visible realms.

A universe or multiverse that precedes or takes in a Creator, even. Brian Clegg's book "Before the Big Bang," which entered my thoughts up in Big Sur where I reviewed it last August, suggests that before the blast that inflated our horizons, there may be dim echoes and trace elements of a recurring pattern, branes colliding, background radiation persisting, that each Big Bang all but obliterates, worlds with end, amen. This end-runs around Anselm's Ontological Principle, and shows that we can have indeed posit a God greater than than we can conceive, if it's a Force that stands outside the universe and allows the First Cause creating "ex nihilo" to be itself inconsistent from what we perceive-- even if we can never prove this to convince a medieval theologian-- as a scientifically postulated space that can, after all and after all ends, never be created... since it has always existed.

This aligned neatly for me with a Buddhist concept. I noted in my blog-Amazon US review of Clegg how he elides over this connection. The recurring model, rather than chronologically Big Bang-> endless expansion theory or the Big Bang-Big Crunch start-stop alternative, fits for me better. It may defy Anselm's thousand-year-old logic, but he did not live in a world of satellites. Clegg predicts that we soon may know much more with the new telescopes we're sending up. Buddhism, as the Dalai Lama has reminded us, if it clashes with scientific proof, would cede a contested doctrine to reason. It does not fear progress. (I've written a lot about Buddhism as a blog keyword search shows, so I will be brief.) I like its lack of digging in and insisting that it alone holds the right way towards salvation. Instead of theistic reward, it leads to inner enlightenment-- a telling distinction. For a Buddhist, the impermanence that the Big Bang's recursive and brane theories suggest may not threaten a belief, but may confirm its ancient message that all things must pass.

Even if the Quiet Beatle was a Hindu; my other favorite term lately's "henotheist": one can believe in one deity while not denying the efficacy of others. Tolerance and its lack among many believers and deniers alike wearies me. Sin happens when we fail to better ourselves and others, not when a god or Santa marks a demerit. Salvation comes when we welcome a messiah to this world, even as atheists or gentiles, when we learn to get along. That's about it for my eschatology these post-purgatorial days.

If we move away from intolerant monotheism, for here my discomfort may lie with my formative mindset, what's next? I've often referred since taking the BeliefNet.com quiz about my religious affiliation vis-a-vis double 100% scores as Mahayana Buddhist & Neo-Pagan. These two don't really match, on the other hand, so they may register I suspect my past study with my ongoing research-- combined with personal reflection-- on Western adaptations of Buddhism. This overlaps Celtic sympathies that may have re-emerged, filtered through an inbred leaning that my childhood may have deeply embedded within me. Despite habitual Catholicism, which tied for last place at 13% in that quiz. Still, another quiz about my spiritual attitudes put me as a Straddler, smack between the observances of more conventional worship and the freer floating thinking and not-thinking akin to a restless seeker such as me.

Added to this, or showing my lack of grounding, another test I took pegged me as an Agnostic-Atheist. The conflation of these terms irritates me, and an exchange with the head of "Atheists United" ticked me off. For 2/3 of the article she presented herself as an atheist. Then this leader defined herself as really an agnostic, to me a related but fundamentally very different philosophy. (No more footnotes but it was Bobbie Kirkhart interviewed by Patt Morrison in the L.A. Times on 12 Dec. 2009.)

That quiz asked me and I confirmed that "God can neither be proven or disproven." For me, a truly agnostic admission. My wife disagrees. She sees God's presence all around her. I have wandered far from this comfort although I grew up with this view. But perhaps I sense it in the fleeting moments of a bird that alights on a branch, or a desert sunrise-- if more than in the maggot that crawls in dog crap or the cancer that kills a third of us. My romantic soul battles here with my pessimistic mind. I find it difficult to attribute a unicorn-and-rainbow goodness to our world when within it, disease and decay also linger, on a planet where we labor in vain to eradicate killers in cells. Remove man, take away incarnation, get rid of revelation, tear up inspired scripture, and still you'd have predators, germs, microbes, and slaughter, far as I can tell. We place over this a storyline of salvation and transcendence, but I suspect it for its wish-fulfillment. We need happy endings; that's why we call them fiction, to paraphrase somehow Oscar Wilde.

Still, I wrote a Master's paper on Tolkien's "eucastrophe," his idea that the Gospel was the first myth that came true. I admire this argument, and once I agreed with it. My sympathies persist, and my medievalist preparation imbued me with an appreciation and respect for this ideal even as my own life's trajectory moved me past it, for as I wrote my dissertation, I found my own beliefs changing.

So, I cannot-- as those quiz results prove-- stay in one checked denominational box. I lack confidence that a loving god or pantheon guides us. After we die all I can say is that we will return to whatever unknowable, unfathomable, and/or non-existent mystery preceded our conception. I aver that it's impossible to one way or the other confirm anything more. My decade working on a dissertation on "the idea of purgatory in Middle English Literature" attests to my interest in the topic, even if the medievals failed to convert me to their pieties. The condition of the soul before it came into a body, as some Neo-Platonic concoction, has for as long as I can remember intrigued me: it was the first philosophical or theological question I formulated as a precocious lad already troubled by mortality and my soul's fate.

In my family tree, around 350 CE, there's a clan ancestor that my great-grandmother as a Connellan from Roscommon may trace her line to. Typically arcane genealogical explorations led me to this fellow, "Ono," who was a Druid. Combine that with the East Mayo "tinker" that then birthed the woman who was my maternal grandmother and you get suggestive, if again romanticized naturally, DNA traces that for a guy like me, stuck in the city, still spark faint but delightful imaginings. I've always loved "origin myths." The ways we explain how we got from way back to now intrigue me. I suppose my own search for faith combines with my own turn back to Ireland.

My teacher, soon to become an ex-nun, freshman year at my distantly-Jesuit-run university, told me I was a Pelagian. My lack of confidence in original sin as staining us, and my trust that the soul unaided by an infusion of grace could attain salvation, set me at odds with orthodoxy. Yet, I learned that this was a decidedly Celtic heresy, and similar misgivings that such as Anselm would have brought from his Italy to Canterbury about such as John Scotus Eriugena's avowal of a primitive creation spirituality, a sort of panentheism, may betray my own genetic theology.

"Magic" may be denigrated or cheapened now, but I suggest in its expression of the inexplicable delight and the uncanny omen it's but too-loose a term for what we cannot account for. A nagging, sense-defying sixth sense that beyond our intellect another level of action, and perhaps meaning, persists: I can live with this. I've always felt that energies move around us. We may tap into them for good or evil purposes. I betray my own naivete or my core creed. Where they come from and where they go I may lack an ability to tell, for I may accede to them without witnessing them myself. But, today at least, absurd as it may be, that's what I might believe.

Image: "Godless Columbia: Terminology FAQ"

5 comments:

alanindyfed said...

"Freedom from the Known"
"The First and Last Freedom"
J. Krishnamurti

Makarios said...

Possibly off-topic, but, FWIW:

Phyllis Curott, in WitchCrafting, writes:

"Magic is what happens when you have encountered the Divine. It is the life-altering experience of connecting to the divinity that dwells within yourself and in the world. It is all of the extraordinary events and manifestations that flow from your union with a real and present divinity. Real magic is your relationship with immanent divinity..." [Italics in original]

Interestingly (to me, anyway,)this definition of "magic" is very much like the definition of "faith" that is applied in much contemporary discourse regarding comparitive religion.

Caroline said...

Conceptions of God vary widely. Theologians and philosophers have studied countless conceptions of God since the dawn of civilization. The Abrahamic conceptions of God include the trinitarian view of Christians, the Kabbalistic definition of Jewish mysticism, and the Islamic concept of God. The dharmic religions differ in their view of the divine: views of God in Hinduism vary by region, sect, and caste, ranging from monotheistic to polytheistic to atheistic; the view of God in Buddhism is almost non-theist. In modern times, some more abstract concepts have been developed, such as process theology and open theism. Conceptions of God held by individual believers vary so widely that there is no clear consensus on the nature of God. The contemporaneous French philosopher Michel Henry has however proposed a phenomenological approach and definition of God as phenomenological essence of Life. I am a college sophomore with a dual major in Physics and Mathematics @ University of California, Santa Barbara. By the way, i came across these excellent physics flash cards. Its also a great initiative by the FunnelBrain team. Amazing!!

Fionnchú said...

Caroline, thanks for this comprehensive yet brief overview of an admittedly and endlessly complicated concept. Henry's phenomenological approach sounds intriguing; I appreciate the reference. I hope UCSB opens up many more realms of exploration for you; I'm curious if in your studies such theories as Brian Clegg surveys enter your curriculum?

Fionnchú said...

Makarios, from my limited if current reading, it seems that the ancients & medievals, at least as defined by their Jewish & Christian opponents, perceived magic as channelling supernatural powers.

By contrast, then, the start of Karen Louise Jolly's entry on "Magic" in "Medieval Folklore" (Lindahl-McNamara-Lindow): "An alternate mode of rationality, portrayed as deviant because of its divergence from the religious and scientific practices (ranging from astrology and alchemy, to the use of charms and amulets, to sorcery and necromancy) that all operate on the principle that the natural world contains hidden powers that human beings can possess or tap for practical purposes, both good and evil." (p. 250)

Two books recently reviewed on this blog appear to posit a difference in how magic today has shifted its attribution. J.B. Russell distinguishes high magic from low, or sorcery, and shows how the supernatural connection was prominent earlier. Margot Adler emphasizes the alternative but this-worldly aspect of magic as practiced by pagans today in American Wicca.

Alan, you sum up what it took me hours to expound upon...