This essay appeared previously at The Pennsylvania Review
Fast on the heels of my Japanese period, I think I’m turning Mosaic, at least for a day. I really think so. Maybe it’s a creeping revulsion that peaked with the recent Connecticut school massacre and has since morphed into the blackest gallows humor. I’m always the worst judge of whether I’m being satiric or serious. That’s a stylistic trifle befitting librarians. How the hell should I know? Must it be either/or?
In all seriousness though, do I believe in God? Carl Jung, whom I always felt possessed the synchronous tact to die a couple of months before my birth (and with whom I share the millstone of Myers-Briggs INTP) hesitates at the ultimate question just as I do. I cannot express enough how the following video snippet helped me lance my own intuitional boils. Asked that very question in this BBC interview shortly before his death, Jung offers a pregnant pause that speaks volumes (below at :10) as he describes his regular childhood attendance in the Swiss Reformed Church where his father was a Pastor:
Interviewer: And did you believe in God?
Jung: Oh yes.
Interviewer: Do you now believe in God?
Jung: Now? <extended pause> Difficult to answer…I know. I don’t need to believe. I know.
Clearly resisting that poor relation, belief, Jung guides the question towards his gnostic predilections. Knowing, without the annunciatory earnestness of a belief system, is the soul converging on a subjective truth that can never be fully captured in the praxis of belief. As John Updike once recognized of Van Gogh:
“The subjective urgency that Van Gogh’s objective studies often projected, as of annunciatory apparitions, now melts the boundary between seer and seen, sight and psyche.”
Who better than an artist to endorse another artist’s subjective urgency? For the rest of us, the projection of belief too often fails to convincingly melt the boundaries between intuition and annunciation. Indeed I might hazard that outspoken belief is a compensatory, even neurotic, mechanism for those who lack intuitional surety; that is, belief is what we wish others to believe of us, often with a rude insistency belying the provisional coordinates of our convictions. That’s why believers often sound brittle and shrill. By the way I include insufferable atheists in this indictment, Hitchens, Dawkins and the like. I endorse intuition. How could I not? I stalk poetry. Moreover I’ve read the poetry of others and have been affected enough to surmise I am not the sole locus of intuition in the universe. So, that would be intuition for me and intuition for you assuming, generously enough, that you are in fact out there. Intuition cannot be proselytized, nor reasoned to the ground. Gnosis is a solitary excavation that eschews scaffolding and resists easy impartation to others.
But back to the all-too-conscious realm of rationalized beliefs. Unlike my importantly earnest friend Mike Burch (a regular contributor here) whose positions I respect for their thoroughly modern appeal, not to mention their determined stabs at straight lines, I am the world’s worst student of Reason. I find it a thin, reedy and ultimately unsatisfactory instrument. Yet why is it in debates over religion I am scarcely believed when, in my best plaintive voice, I profess disquiet, like Jung, over the proffering of belief, am frankly mystified by the very process of alighting on personal belief, and am therefore disinclined to lodge belief or nonbelief in the beliefs of others? While there is such a thing as rudderless solipsism, there is also the laudable and conscious tactic of resisting belief. Left to themselves, belief systems can be benign enough prescriptions that fit crisply on a page. Put two or more together however and the joint can go up in flames. Conflicting belief systems reveal combustible perimeters. Beliefs are generally crabby and antisocial. There is always a sly inference or hint of defensiveness. Truces can be struck for the purposes of civility. Invariably these are broken. During interwar periods, uneasy coexistence is the rule. Full embrace of others defies the true nature of the true believer.
Pressed to offer my own dogma in a nutshell, it would approximate what British scientist J. D. S. Haldane said (when ‘queer’ simply meant odd or counter-rational): “my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” The flame I try to keep alive is a palpable awareness of the ungraspable. This causes me to exclude nothing. Believe me, I want to bang the table and clear a few things up. It’s hard leaving questions just to stand out in the rain. But what else can you do?
Belief in the indefatigable nature of reason is, well, a belief if not a false idol altogether. On the surface, Burch’s plaints sound sensible and reasonable enough (from a recent Burch Facebook post: “the Bible and Christianity postulate a God who has values like love, compassion, justice, etc…If there is no such God, most of the Bible and the Christian religion stop making sense…”) I’m sure Mike will chime in if I’m miscasting his views, but I didn’t know God was to manifest love, compassion and justice in precisely the manner asked of me, a mere mortal. Under the guise of reasonableness, Burch is making a breathtaking attempt at man-God equalization. Certainly God would flunk a human ethics class. As to why He would—and He would—I honestly cannot say. Surely God is something other than the sum of our anthropocentric fallacies, if a pronoun (and a capitalized one no less) even begins to acquit the weird incomprehensible sentience that God may in fact be.
S. Lewis suggests in Words to Live By: A Guide for the Merely Christian that the anthropomorphic fallacy may run furthest afoul in the Christian notion of the Trinity. As God is not a person, human reason is not a suitable yardstick to grasp the ‘rationale’ behind His words and actions:
“We must remind ourselves that Christian theology does not believe God to be a person. It believes Him to be such that in Him a trinity of persons is consistent with a unity of Deity. In that sense it believes Him to be something very different from a person, just as a cube, in which six squares are consistent with unity of the body, is different from a square.”
Thus deep wells of fear and loathing prevent me from unseating God much less abrogating His godhood altogether over a low grade in Secular Humanism 101. Nor am I comfortable sanctioning the bluster in His prose. His immense mystery deserves the benefit of human doubt. Oddly enough, I’m much more comfortable with God when He exceeds my grasp. Abraham Lincoln offers the ultimate concession speech on how some things simply lie beyond that remarkable instrument, the reasoning mind. Here’s Abe putting the shine on foggy ambivalence in his Second Inaugural Address:
“Both [sides of the Civil War] read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”
I’m equally ham-fisted when it comes to waving the banners of Progress and Enlightenment. In less eventful moments I can sink into my TV chair and allow the low tenor of the crowd to bear me along. Everyone has their bread and circus days. However during flashpoints, truth be told, I see very little light. I never have. New Age reads like the claptrap aisle in a bookstore, little else.
Quantum physics teaches that the world is strung together by paradox, a fancy Greek term for wings, prayers and tortoises all the way down. No wonder quantum cosmologists are accused of theological indirection by traditional scientists (the latter being, if one prefers, rapt believers in empiricism). Armed with the right eternity, walking on water becomes scientifically possible and a whit more terra firma than padding along held up by faith alone. Tertullian grasped the paradoxical truth-content of paradox when he said of Christ: “He was buried, and rose again: it is certain–because it is impossible.” With nothing to hold us up, was there any question we would Fall?
Throughout the Old Testament, God is never done cursing the myriad indignities that attend wave collapse. Imagine letting everything go just to let shit happen? And yet the Newtonians love nothing better than to lambaste God for His laughable inconsistencies as though The Prime Mover Himself can’t be bedeviled with second thoughts. Any purposefulness behind human history goes out the window if potentiality lacks authentic wiggle room. We’re back to paradox: maybe an omnipotent God was obliged to create men and not Manchurian Candidates. This obliges Him to curse men evermore. But I even have a problem with omnipotence as a characteristic of God (Are you beginning to see how I can be a perfect pain in the ass at cocktail parties?). Power is a facet of finitude. If God is everywhere (omnipresent), he hardly needs power to propel or leverage Himself anywhere else. Power requires a predicate—power over something else, the power to overwhelm another. Omnipotence is thus a silly word, an etymological nonstarter that conceals, yet again, a shady anthropomorphic core.
Speaking of etymologies, Karen Armstrong offers in The Case for Godan evolving definition of the word belief as being once, something “held dear” to now “an intellectual assent to a hypothetical–and often dubious–proposition.” One could argue that an intellectual assent to a dubious proposition constitutes driving into a really bad neighborhood, certainly an anti-intellectual journey or a wholesale abandonment of intellect. All I know is if you’ve ever tried to gently counsel a close friend against a really toxic significant other, you soon encounter a primate-level, near-violent recoil. Them’s fighting words even if the one held dear is never done flirting with others or sits spread-eagled across a determinedly checkered past.
Verily I say, belief is a tricky thing and I am just the tricky dick to pin it in the corner. A thicket of trepidations, I would sooner break out in boils and sores than conform the Old Testament God to my feeble, time-bound pulleys and levers of social justice. Pressed further, I might even rend my breast (but reserve the right to check Google first to see how much it hurts). We commit an anthropomorphic fallacy to denounce God in human ethical terms. The ‘reasons behind’ God’s myriad prohibitions which so many others of my time and place impudently deem unfashionable or unbecoming the One and Only God, I choose to call unfathomable.
My Reason (I’ll speak only for mine) is much like a serpent consigned to imagining unimaginable heights from the promontory of its belly. This causes me to marvel at the cool certitude of my fellow slitherers all the more. In the end I’m left marveling at how people manage to settle on belief, much less certainty, without leaving room for some deprecating irony or the odd, queer parallel universe. Bereft of altitude (or are they higher?) how is it they never cease to proffer commanding views? Maybe the devil lifted them up so that they might better carve out a kingdom for themselves. I’m kidding! That’s just a story. Let he who is without scales throw the first Mile High Club party. I, a perfect asp, will be no snake on that plane.
At the same time, how can a Boa Constrictor render parallel judgment? Let each serpent choke or prevail on its own prey. I’m too low-down to castigate. I am, by orders of magnitude, more Sidewinder than Pharisee. Though I’m aware some snakes climb trees.
The fear of the LORD is clean, enduring forever: the judgments of the LORD are true and righteous altogether! (Psalm 19:9)
Altogether! Without human redaction! Impervious to cliff notes! Even the yucky parts! I refuse to believe, discard, negate or parse; and at the end of all this prickly forbearance I’m nobody’s nihilist either. Neat trick, huh? Let he who brandishes a yellow highlight marker be smote by an Unabridgeable Auteur. What a word, smote! How did we ever allow it to slither off? Suffice to say the Word of the Lord will not be harmonized into a Martha Stewart lifestyle choice, not from the belly of this beast anyway.
So when did fear, unerring companion of loathing, become a thoroughly modern pejorative? A healthy fear of the unknowable sounds reasonableenough to me. Overweening confidence is a Satanic ministration. If the recent massacre of innocents teaches us anything, it is to remind us our only life-raft is to quake like proper creatures in retrograde skins as the universe bursts at the seams at an accelerating rate. The Age of Reason has delivered us to a No-Better-Place otherwise known as the Redoubled Void. The Enlightenment was a thousandth point of light from a Dollar Store light-bulb. Market efficiency remains a perennial bedevilment. No trumpeted advance delivers us beyond our Original sack of bones. Please forgive my staff and sandals moment. I’m sure it will pass and I will become fashionable again.
Amen while supplies last.