Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A Leap of Hubris

In one of my classes the other day a student took issue with the Calvinist notion that salvation was predestined: You are born for heaven or hell, and there is nothing much you can do about it.

“That isn’t biblical,’ my student complained. I replied that John Calvin was quite learned in the Bible, and in his mind predestination was not only biblical it was “gospel.” My student tossed out a few choice biblical quotes to defeat Calvin, and found himself assailed by others who tossed out their scriptural quotes in support of Calvin.

“If you believe the Bible to be the inerrant word of God, how can there be so many different and opposing understandings?” I asked. “And, while we are at it, how are we decide which of the many books that claim to be the word of God is in fact the word of God?”

We knocked this around for a bit and came to the conclusion that it is ultimately a matter of faith.

“So faith is simply your opinion projected onto God?” I asked. Stunned silence. I waited until someone became uncomfortable enough with the silence to break it. “No, it isn’t my opinion, it is my faith.”

“What’s the difference?” I asked. “For example, there are millions upon millions of bright, thoughtful people who believe God spoke to Mohammed and dictated the Koran. There are even more equally bright and thoughtful people who believe God impregnated a Jewish woman and died on a Roman cross. I believe all of these people are wrong. On what grounds do I assert this? On the grounds that my faith denies it. But how do I know my faith is true rather than simply old and adamant? I don’t.”

“That’s why we call it faith,” someone said.

“Meaning what? That faith is simply synonymous with groundless assertion? Look at this carefully. You take something on faith because you do not know for certain it is true. Yet you choose to label one idea as true and another as false simply on the basis of your own predilection or conditioning. In the end faith is simply a mirror reflecting back your own bias. Because you deny faith is a mirror you imagine the face it reflects belongs to someone else, maybe God. But the truth is you are only seeing yourself, your ego. Faith is simply an affirmation of your own ignorance.”

“This can’t be,” someone half-whispered.

“Don’t take my word for it,” I said. “Find out for yourselves. And when you find a truth that doesn’t require you to choose it as true among competing truths, please let me know.” So far no one has.


Frenchsheepdog said...

I have always found it strange that people who think the Bible is the inerrant word of God read the Bible in English. Anyone who has taken a high school foreign language class knows that translation is by necessity inexact. Do these people believe that their translations are inerrant too? (I recently saw a car with a bumpersticker that said "The King James Bible is the Perfect Word of God." While the translation is poetic in English, this is kind of a silly statement that is, at its core, a marketing slogan. You might as well put a bumper sticker on your car that says "El Pollo Loco is the perfect chicken of God" or "The Simpsons is the Perfect Animated Cartoon Show of God." Why not just "I really like the King James version of the Bible"?)

AaronHerschel said...

Yes. Faith is synonymous with groundless assertion. The only knowledge human beings are capable of is experiential and subjective. And yet we desire, perhaps more than anything, an absolute perspective from which to know the world and ourselves. We demand objectivity, and so we invent God.

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus, (echoing Descarte) describes it this way: “This heart within me I can feel, and I judge that it exists. This world I can touch, and I likewise judge that it exists. There ends all my knowledge, and the rest is construction.”

Faith, like all human knowledge, is a projection: the chimerical product of a deep-seated yearning for meaning that must answer itself in the affirmative, or vanish in a puff of smoke. We either mean, or we die. And yet we die anyway, so that the meanings we construct and project into our lives are finally silenced by the one incontrovertible truth of the universe: transience.

But if transience is the only verifiable truth, then (in a sort of self-negating tautology) no truth that asserts itself as absolute and eternal can be true. As the Taoists have it, the Tao that can be named is not the true Tao. When we rely on the doctrines of our faith as authoritative we may feel comforted, but we are also crippled. To quote Camus again: “I understand then why the doctrines that explain everything to me also debilitate me at the same time. They relieve me of the weight of my own life, and yet I must carry it alone.”

For Camus then, the trick is to “live without appeal.” That is, without appeal to absolutes, whether the comforting authority of a higher power (God) or a higher reality (the immanent Kingdom of God, or Plato’s realm of ideal Form). The difficult, fleeting, illusory present, with its baffling barrage of images and experiences, suffering and joy, is all we ever know.

There are two ways to deal with this reality. On the one hand, Nihilism asserts that the world is chaos, that the meanings we invent are paltry, and that we should all simply give them up and live as self-gratifying a life as possible before death erases us. I don’t find this particularly compelling—it’s simultaneously selfish and self-hating, and is driven by an implicit despair. To affirm nothingness in the nihilistic sense is to commit spiritual suicide.

The other option is Existentialism, which usually gets a bad rap by its association with the above. But Nihilism is only a perversion of Existentialist ideals. Where the nihilist is cowed by the lack of objective truth and the inevitability of death, the existentialist is liberated by it:

“All that remains is a fate whose outcome alone is fatal. Outside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world. The outcome of his thought , ceasing to be renunciatory, flowers in images. It frolics - in myths, to be sure, but myths with no other depth than that of human suffering and like it inexhaustible. Not the divine fable that amuses and blinds, but the terrestrial face, gesture, and drama in which are summed up a difficult wisdom and an ephemeral passion.” (Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus).

So what is the wisdom, what is the passion that Camus affirms? To live on the razor’s edge of doubt, and to continue creating meanings and truths even without the claim to absolute authority. Human beings are meaning machines. Our imagination recognizes (or invents) patterns in the chaos of nature and finds them poignant and beautiful, and all the more so for being ephemeral. Our faith is not in the finality of these patterns, but in their ongoing creation; not in the truth, but in the truth-making process.