Thursday, June 9, 2011

In God We Trust

     To teach how to live without certainty and yet not be paralyzed by hesitation is perhaps the chief thing that philosophy, in our age, can do for those who study it.
          -Bertrand Russell    

     The oddly-shaped Italian nuns who taught me how to read, to write and to pray would often punctuate our lessons with aphorisms, adages solemnly delivered and carefully designed to underscore some key moral or theological point.
     Some examples:  (a) "Familiarity breeds contempt."  (b) "Do good to those who persecute you."  (c) "Pride always goes before a fall."  (d) "God helps those who help themselves."

     I never understood all the implications of (a) and, anyway, Hegel probably said it better: "No man is a hero to his valet."  The idea of (b) made some sense in a Catholic upbringing, of course, but since the nuns were the ones doling out most of the persecution in our daily lives, it was tough to see it as anything other than self-serving. And (c) seemed to flatly contradict what my father always told me, namely, to take pride in my work, so I ignored it.

     It was (d) that gave me the most theoretical difficulty.  Did it mean, for example, that God really didn't need to do all that much, since who requires divine help if you're already helping yourself in the first place? Maybe God just kind of certified what you accomplished on your own, like issuing a Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval after the fact, but what's the point of that? And what about the poor guys who are totally unable to help themselves?  Does God simply stand by and watch them go to rack, ruin and rot the way a bank writes someone off as a poor credit risk?  Were these nuns, after all, just unaware that they were preaching old-fashioned deism while wearing the black and white habits of papal infallibility?

     As my nine-year old mind pondered these questions (secretly, of course, or else I would have been beaten for the sin of pondering), I began to realize that we can never, ever be sure that we know what we are talking about when we talk about God.  And I was delighted in later life to find that even some of our greatest theologians agreed with me. Karl Barth knew that faith had to constantly 'seek understanding" but that the journey would never end while we lived. Paul Tillich wrote that "doubt isn't the opposite of faith; it's an element of faith." Saint Thomas Aquinas--often wrongly portrayed as an unrepentant rationalist--said that in the last analysis, everything trails off into mystery, no matter how much we think we know.

     Everything?  Yes, maybe everything.  To make this point does not entail that religion and God-talk are, therefore, meaningless. " Mysterious" isn't equivalent to "senseless." Faith, as the philosopher William James brilliantly argued, can be rational without being the outcome of a formally logical argument, just as art, literature and poetry can be meaningful while not being meaningful the same way chemistry, physics and biiology are. (What would scientific poetry be like, anyway?) We will never have available the human concepts to completely and confidently describe things that are, by definition, beyond the scope of those concepts.

     This is why we condemn the Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, the fundamentalists of all religions who use their spiritual certitude as both a figurative and literal club to punish--even kill--those who disagree with their dubious dogma.  This is why we must constantly object to those who try to force their suspect religious certainties onto the lives of the rest of us, whether though school board policies, local ordinances, state laws or national legislation and regulation.  Yes, they are seriously invading the democratic and moral rights of others to believe whatever they want to believe.  But by opposing these crusaders we are actually doing them a favor, saving them from error, for they are making a mockery of their own religious beliefs in the very act of brandishing them.

    We are trying to help them. They need to thank us. They might be doing the very work of the Devil himself without knowing it.                       

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