Saturday, April 20, 2013

On the Life-Debasing Sensibilities of the True Believers

  • Fanatical Muslims kill thousands in their attack on the World Trade Center in New York because God wills them to strike fears into the heart of the infidel.
  • A pious Christian murders an abortion doctor in Kansas because he was convinced that God wanted him to revenge the lives of the unborn taken by the practice of abortion.
  • Devout Jews drive Muslims from their homelands on the West Bank and Gaza Strip because they believe that God has granted them the rights to their lands.
And now two brothers from Chechnya, Tamerlan and Dzhohar Tsarnev, caused mayhem and panic in Boston after exploding two bombs at the Boston Marathon.  The older brother, Tamerlan, age 26, had clearly been on the road to religious fanaticism for some time. The younger, Dzhohar, age 19, appears to have been influenced by his brother’s religious views, although by all accounts he was a fairly assimilated American.  Whatever their specific motivations might have been, it is clear that religion played a huge role in inspiring their rampage. 
There are those who would argue that the religious beliefs that propelled these two to kill innocent human beings represent a perverse form of Islam.  But in fact, the sacred book for all Muslims, The Koran, has over 100 verses calling for the faithful to go to war against infidels.  And this includes the following:
"And slay them wherever ye find them, and drive them out of the places whence they drove you out, for persecution [of Muslims] is worse than slaughter [of non-believers]... but if they desist, then lo! Allah is forgiving and merciful.   And fight them until persecution is no more, and religion is for Allah." (Koran 2:191-193)
Of course, Christian and Jews have no grounds to be too smug.  The Old Testament is filled with passages calling for genocide against non-believers and acts of violence against those who violate God’s law.  And the New Testament contains passages that have been used by Christians to justify sexism, racism, and homophobia to this very day (not to mention inspiring several crusades, a fairly nasty inquisition, and centuries of slavery). 
The problem with religious belief in general is that at times it can be used as a kind of crutch to cover up the fears, anxieties, and insecurities that are part and parcel of the human condition.  Sickness, suffering, old age, and death are our lot in life.  And no one likes to think that the misery we experience is pointless.  So some people turn to religion to provide them with a soothing narrative to help put their suffering into some kind of meaningful content. 
With his faith to support him, the believer doesn’t have to worry about death any longer, because, as long as he remains faithful to God’s law, he will be rewarded with an eternity of pleasure with God in heaven (rather like your Disney vacation extended forever, but without all the humid weather, endless lines, and mobs of annoying children at every turn).  This leads to a kind of inner peace, but it’s an illusionary one: we can forget for a few moments at least just how wretched life is, but in the end we can never actually escape the reality of our own human contingency and finitude.  As Kierkegaard noted, despair is an inevitable part of our human experience and affects the believer just as much as it does the non-believer. 
The religious fanatic, however, takes his faith to another level entirely than the ordinary believer.  The fanatic has the kind of crystal clear certainty about God’s will and how he should live his life that admits absolutely no questioning or doubt.  In a Twitter feed, Dzhohar Tsarnev, the younger of the two Boston marathon bombers, wrote the following:
I kind of like religious debates.  Just knowing what other people believe is interesting and then completely crushing their beliefs with facts is fun.
Notice that Dzhohar didn’t say that he enjoys religious debates because it helps him to become more sympathetic to views than are different from his own.  He enjoys them because he gets a thrill from “crushing” his opponents.  And notice also that he describes his opponents’ positions as “beliefs” (something subjective, capricious, subject to error) and his own as “facts” (objective, certain, and infallible).
The religious fanatic’s certainty leads him to view the beliefs of all those with whom he disagrees as a kind of heresy—a rejection of God’s eternal law and a violation of the moral order that He has established on earth.  This makes it much easier, I suppose, to demean one’s opponents and to put them in the category of unredeemable heretic, apostate, or infidel.  It also makes it easier to kill them when you need to, because your opponents become, not just those who have a different perspective on the truth, but rather those who are activity working against God’s sublime plans for mankind (the establishment of the Kingdom or of sharia law on earth, for example).
But this denigration of the non-believer alone doesn’t fully account for the propensity of some fanatics to engage in acts of violence against those with whom they disagree.  I’ve met plenty of religious fanatics in my time, but none of them, at least to my knowledge, has ever caused serious physical harm to another human being.  They may foam up at the mouth during an argument about religion, but they probably aren’t going to kill you because you disagree with them.    There’s something more at work in the psychological make-up of the “true believer” that enables him to move from disagreeing strenuously with his opponents to wanting to see his opponents maimed or killed.   
And that something more is the kind of life-denying sensibility that is an inevitable part of all religious belief, but which is magnified almost infinitely in the minds of fanatics.
Certainly I think that all religious belief contains within itself some degree of life-denial.  The believer—whether Christian, Jew, or Muslim—sees his ultimate end separate from his life in this world.  Earthly existence, at its best, is an imperfect reflection of that eternal life to which the believer aspires.  At its worst, it becomes a “veil of tears” that we are forced to suffer through on our way to our true home with God in heaven.
By focusing on the next life, the believer inevitably is forced to downplay or ignore what’s going on in this world.  The believer, for example, doesn’t have to worry about the polar ice caps melting and what this might mean for future generations, because his focus is on the next world. He need not concern himself with creating a more just and social order here, because the very injustices that he experiences will provide the justification for his rewards later. 
But, though there’s a degree of life-denial in all religious belief, for the religious fanatic this life-denial takes on a pathological form.  It becomes not just life-denial, but life-denigration.  For the fanatic, any sense of pleasure, meaning, and satisfaction from this life that one derives diminishes the focus that ought to be placed on the next life.  So the fanatic is forced to view earthly existence as something ugly, sordid, and unsavory in order to magnify the qualities of the world to come.  For Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, Kansas becomes something hideous to be fled from, because it makes that “somewhere over the rainbow” where she really longs to be all that much more desirable.  The only difference between Dorothy and the religious fanatic is that the fanatic never has the opportunity to realize that there really is “no place like home,” whereas Dorothy is wise enough by the end of her adventures to eventually come to understand that fact.
Like all human beings, the religious fanatic has a biological drive to try to derive as much physical pleasure from life as possible.  But the more he enjoys things like food, drink, sex, and even the higher pleasures of friendship and family life, the more tortured he becomes, because he views his natural desires as a kind of moral weakness.  This tension probably exists in all religious fanatics.  It’s interesting to note that the bombers of the World Trade Center couldn’t stop themselves from going to a strip club and drinking to excess before committing their atrocities.  One can only imagine that the contempt they felt for themselves for giving into such physical pleasures must have provided fuel for the murderous acts that they later engaged in.
Lest anyone think that I am attacking all forms of religious belief as bordering on life-denigration, let me assure you that this is most certainly not my position.  Just as I’ve met more than a few religious fanatics during my many years working for the Catholic Church, I’ve also met many devout men and women who are as life-affirming as you can possibly be.  These are people who sincerely believe that God’s kingdom is already at hand and that religious faith is meant to be lived out fully in this world.  Such individuals are deeply committed to making the world a better place and see absolutely no incompatibility between their love of life and their love for God.

But I also think that, to the extent that there is any kind of life-denying message in the teachings of organized religion, we will be providing a breeding ground for those warped individuals who think it necessary to demonstrate their devotion to God by wreaking havoc on the world.  In this sense, people like Tamerlan and Dzhohar Tsarnev should be viewed as victims of a perverse and unhealthy worldview that has been shaped by life-denigrating tendencies that exist in most of our major religions. It’s only when we begin to acknowledge that religious faith and life-affirmation, far from being incompatible, are actually two essential components of a healthy spiritual life that we will even begin to address the underlying causes of acts of terrorism like the one we just witnessed in Boston.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

This Being Unto Death

I’m dying…Did you know that?

Don’t get too upset about it: you’re dying too. We’re all dying. In fact from the very moment we’re born on this planet, our lives have been a steady, inexorable progression to the grave. We’re literally “being unto death”—to use the memorable terminology of the philosopher, Martin Heidegger.

I know what you’re thinking right now: “That’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? Who doesn’t know that they’re going to die?”

But it isn’t really obvious at all to most people. If you’re elderly, or sickly, or have had a close friend or a family member die tragically, then maybe you have appreciation for the fact that you are a being unto death. But if you are a typical college student at the peak of your physical development, you probably only understand death in the abstract. Death for most twenty- year-olds—actually, for most people regardless of their age—is something that happens to someone else: to Aunt Sally who had cancer, or Grandma who was 90, or to that starving child in the commercial about Africa.

But you certainly don’t think it’s going to happen to you…not for a very, very long while anyway.

When you’re in your twenties, the last thing you want to do is spend your time thinking about death. There are wild parties to go to, romances to be had, careers to be started. Who has time to think about death? When you’re young, you’re also convinced that you’re indestructible. That’s why most twenty-year-olds are almost always reckless jerks on the road. They don’t ever stop to think that getting behind the wheel drunk and driving 80 miles an hour on the expressway is the perfect recipe for swift demise.

Believe it or not, I was young once too. At one time in my life I too thought that I would live forever. I used to laugh at old people and their assorted ailments. I remember once working a security job when I was a freshman in college and was teamed up with a 60 year old former cop named Lenny. Lenny would have to run to the bathroom every half hour or so and I’d inevitably make some wise crack about his old man bowels. I remember quite well, though, what he used to say to me: “Just you wait, Mike, one day you’ll get old and you’ll be crapping bee bees all day long too.”

Thankfully, I’m not crapping bee bees yet. But as I pass through my fourth decade on this planet, I also am quite aware that I am no longer that young, 130 pound smart ass who never gave a moment’s thought to sickness or old age. The hair is definitely thinning out now, and strands of grey are starting to appear out of nowhere. When I was in my twenties, I was so emaciated that I used to drink weight-gain formula that I bought at a fitness store, just so my ribs wouldn’t stick out quite so much. Now I have to watch everything that I eat and work out almost every day to forestall the inevitability of middle-aged sag.

The first time I was aware that I was no longer a young person was when I was on the subway with a group of college students for a class we were having in Manhattan. We were all hanging onto a pole in the train car, and I happened to glance down at our hands all bunched together. And then I saw it: that brittle, veiny, craggy old hand in a sea of soft, collagen-rich, wrinkle-free hands. There was no mistaking it: I was no longer young.

So you see, I really am going to die. Maybe not today or tomorrow, but relatively soon. And I can’t deceive myself about that fact any more the way I could when I was younger. The old man hands that I stare at every time I type something on the computer won’t ever let me forget that fact.

And, when I die, I tell you, that the universe and everything in it will die with me. What good does it do me that humanity lives on if I am to be no more? When I die, my art dies with me; when I die, my words disappear as if into thin air; when I die, all the hopes and dreams of a lifetime are buried in the grave with me.

Or is there some other state that I can hope for after death that might take away some of the bitter sting of human mortality? Certainly thinkers much more profound than I am have developed fairly persuasive arguments for the immortality of the soul that should not be cynically dismissed. But you and I must also acknowledge that all claims to a life beyond this one are matters of hope and faith, and may very well amount to little more than the desperate longings of fearful minds.

Fortunately, while I’m alive I have philosophy, which Plato in the Republic so aptly called a “preparation for death.” He meant that philosophy prepares the soul to live out its existence after death in an incorporeal state. But I think that, when we consider philosophy a preparation for death, we mean something much more than this. We mean that philosophy places death front and center as an object of contemplation in order to teach us what’s most important about our transient human condition.

The acknowledgment that I’m going to die in fairly short order forces me to think seriously about the way I am living out the precious time I have on this planet. Am I living a worthy life, a noble life, a virtuous life? Am I leaving the world a better place than I found it? As the Quaker Stephen Grellet once put it, “I expect to pass through this world but once. Any good that I can do, therefore, let me do it now. For I shall not pass this way again.” Am I, in fact, doing the good I can while I am here? Or am I just adding to the sum total of human misery, inflicting my own nasty emotional baggage onto others around me?

I’m dying and so are you, but it’s nothing to get morbid about. In fact, you just might find that contemplating on death now and then helps put our human existence into true perspective, sifting out what is really important in life from what is utterly frivolous and insignificant. And the inevitability of death teaches us, above all, that our fragile human lives are the most valuable gift imaginable and ought to be fully cherished each and every moment, for …
We shall not pass this way again.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

In Defense of Augustinian Pessimism

In general, I think the TV sitcom is a fairly stupid form of entertainment.  In 22 minutes, there’s some silly conflict, a happy resolution of the conflict, and the amazing advancement in insight and moral behavior that inevitably occurs at the end of each episode. 

The one exception I make to my sitcom antipathy is that old standby of 1990’s comedy—Seinfeld.  What is it that sets this show apart from more banal sitcoms, you may be wondering?  Well, the creators of Seinfeld—Jerry Seinfeld himself and Larry David—were keen philosophers of human nature.  They understood that, for the most part, our characters are fixed, that human beings keep making the same mistakes all the time, and that true personal growth and transformation rarely, if ever, occurs in the real world.  “No hugging, no learning,” was Larry David’s philosophical approach to the show, and this is precisely what makes it so profound.  In the last episode of the series, the four main characters actually wind up in prison, and they still learn nothing from their experiences.  We are almost guaranteed that when they finish serving their prison terms, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer will immediately return to the cynical narcissistic behavior that got them into so much trouble in the first place.
I have no doubt that, if St. Augustine were living in the 1990s, he would have appreciated the wisdom of Seinfeld too.  You see, Augustine was convinced that the effects of original sin and the force of vicious habits over long periods of time created a situation in which men and women may know what the right way to behave is, but they wind up time and again doing what is wrong anyway.   For example, a college sophomore who is on a very tight budget because of school expenses, knows damn well that she shouldn’t spend the little money she has buying a new pair of stylish leather boots, especially since she already has five pairs of boots in her closet already.  She goes to the mall with her friends determined only to look, but years of rampant consumerism and the rush she gets from buying new things undermine her fragile resolve.  By the time she leaves the mall, she has spent $200 on a new pair of boots that she didn’t actually need, and now is wondering whether she is going to find the funds to pay for gas to get to school.
In real life, this happens all the time: we resolve to begin eating better, but can’t resist the urge to wolf down Big Macs three or four times a week; we know we should not drink to excess, but wind up binge drinking almost every weekend; we promise ourselves that we will be kinder to our parents, but always seem to get into fights with them over the silliest things.
Augustine saw nothing strange in this pattern of behavior.  He was convinced that human nature was so corrupted that one could know darn well what the right thing to do is, but feel compelled to do what is wrong anyway.  His favorite quote was from Ovid:  “Video meliora proboque deteriora sequor.” (I see the better way and approve it, but I follow the worse way.)
What’s so radical about Augustine’s approach to human behavior is that it represents a complete and total break from the classical tradition of which he’s technically a part.  The adherents of all of the great schools of antiquity—the Neo-Platonists, the Peripathetics, the Academics, the Cynics, the Epicureans, and the Stoics—basically accepted the principle that, if a person knew what was right and desired to do what was right, right moral behavior was virtually guaranteed.   But Augustine clearly understood that this was an overly simplistic way of understanding human nature.  He knew this because in his own life he had troubles committing to do the good that he desired to do (“Lord, make me chaste and continent, but not yet”) and because, as a priest and bishop he encountered individuals who were sincere in their desires to live out the Christian faith, but who fell back into sin time and again.
And this is what makes Augustine seem so modern and relevant in the 21st century compared to his more idealistic counterparts in antiquity.  We understand today just how nearly impossible it is to overcome addictions.  We also have a much greater understanding today of those factors—environmental, psychological, and genetic—that often interfere with the free exercise of the will.
In this sense, I consider Augustine to be the first modern thinker in the West.  His understanding of human nature may indeed be pessimistic, but it’s also extremely realistic.  If you don’t believe me, just try this simple exercise:  commit yourself for one whole week not to lie or gossip for any reason.  See how long you succeed in carrying out this intention.
At the end of the exercise, you too may find yourself beginning to question just how free you are to do the good you desire.  And that’s exactly the sort of humility that Augustine claims is needed, if we are ever to begin to look outside of ourselves for a solution to our human problems.