Doubt is a hot topic and doubters and skeptics are persons of interest for churches given the rise of the “nones” (and the decline of the nuns). For many who were raised on traditional Christianity a plausibility gap has opened up for a number of reasons, here are a few large ones:
- the rise of cosmopolitan relativism (See John Suk’s book “Not Sure”)
- postmodern suspicions that organized religion is a rigged game of power at the expense of the weak
- a Scientism fueled by the success of technology in improving human control over nature
- raising a moral critique of Yhwh mostly in the Hebrew Scriptures based on Canaanite genocide, slavery, treatment of gays and women
While skepticism is common in human experience, it flourishes in contexts of affluence and comfort devoid of the necessity of consequential decision making of immediate life and death.
That Which Is Beyond Doubt
I very much understand and feel the attraction of skepticism (given the bubble of relative affluence and comfort of my life and the ways that I too am subject to the influence of the list above) but a larger sliding of my perspective on time invites me into a more desperate, dark sphere. While one part of me resides in a middle class world buoyed by government entitlements, private insurance and the grace of loving family and community another resides in a world filled with the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill, the sick and the dying. I see first hand how tenuous is our grasp on the life we feel entitled to by our consumer economy.
I have in my congregation driven some of my good people to frustrating by my continued utterance of the phrase “the age of decay” to describe this world. The fact is I can’t let it go. I see it all around me. Men, women and children finally lose whatever it is that they have gained and that which they cherished and prized is stolen, trampled, forgotten or destroyed.
If in fact you look at a very long view of time the news is even more grim. David Brin, a scientist and science fiction author wrote a captivating piece for the online magazine Salon answering the question “How will the world end?” The end of every civilization is not a matter of if, but when. There are at least 210 theories of the causes of the demise of the Roman Empire and no consensus. The world we have invested ourselves into will end, sooner or later.
The Great Filter
Brin goes on to describe Enrico Fermi’s observation to colleagues while he worked on the Manhattan Project.
Way back, about a century ago, physicist Enrico Fermi and his colleagues, taking a lunchbreak from the Manhattan Project, found themselves discussing life in the cosmos. Some younger scientists claimed that amid trillions of stars there should be countless living worlds inhabited by intelligent races, far older than ours. How interesting the future might be with others to talk to!
Fermi listened patiently, then asked: “So? Shouldn’t we have heard their messages by now? Seen their great works? Or stumbled on residue of past visits? These wondrous others … where are they?”
Astronomers now use planet-hunting telescopes to estimate how many stars have companion worlds with molten water, and how often that leads to life. Others cogently guess what fraction of those Life Worlds develop technological beings. And what portion of those will either travel or transmit messages. Most conclude — we shouldn’t be alone. Yet, silence reigns.
Eventually it sank in — this wasn’t just theoretical. Something must be suppressing the outcome. Some “filter” may winnow the number of sapient races, low enough to explain our apparent isolation. Our loneliness.
Over 10 dozen pat “explanations for the Fermi Paradox” have been offered. Some claim that our lush planet is unique. (And, so far, nothing like Earth has been found, though life certainly exists out there.) Or that most eco-worlds suffer more lethal accidents — like the one that killed the dinosaurs — than Earth has.
Might intelligence be a fluke? Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr said — “Nothing demonstrates the improbability of high intelligence better than the 50 billion earthly species that failed to achieve it.” Or else, Earth may have some unique trait, rare elsewhere, that helped humans move from mere intelligence to brilliance at technology.
Sound gloomy? These are the optimistic explanations! They suggest the “great filter” — whatever’s kept the numbers down — lies behind us. Not ahead.
Brim continues to go into great detail about all of our notions of survival exceptionalism and shows them to be flimsy and thin.
The consolation commonly offered this grim reality is that possibly by the time our inevitable mass extinction occurs you and everything you have ever loved or valued will already be destroyed and forgotten. Phew. At least I don’t have to watch…
Comfort Through Convenient Identity and Attention Management
How are we not crushed by the reality of this existential threat? We have lots of strategies, most of them involving intentionally positive selective attention.
- We take control of circumstances to the degree we can
- We avoid the unpleasant and focus on what we like
- We diminish or filter our sensory perceptions (drugs, alcohol, entertainment, etc.)
A popular pathway today is to indulge in a certain pantheism, imagining that we are the universe and the universe is us. Positive pantheism always requires a highly selective exercise in identity. I wish to identify with the flower and the spring rain, and avoid being the dioxin poisoning New Jersey rivers, the child soldier of the Congo learning to rape, kill and steal just to survive, or the ice on an airless asteroid driving to end conscious life on a living planet.
Managing the Insides to Cope with the Uncontrollable
Susan Engel, a senior lecturer in psychology in a New York Times piece feels the need to state what parents have been telling me for years. “Little children, little problems. Bigger children, bigger problems.”
At the end of her piece she reassures us her son is now doing fabulously (what does it say about us as a culture that this reassurance is a sort of boiler plate for pieces like these?) and that she is graduating from a support group to reading about Zen Buddhism. It’s telling that she sheds a practice from her discipline which her disciple asserts provides consolation, for a specifically religious path.
To live is to suffer – that was Buddha’s First Noble Truth, the truth that he thought was the most obvious and indisputable truth in life, the data on which any quasi-scientific theory of human life must be erected. Pain is the most obvious problem in the world. This is no less true today, for now that our civilisation has succeeded in conquering half of humanity’s physical pains, by anesthetics and medical technology and boogie boards, it has also doubled humanity’s spiritual pains: depression, despair, divorce (which is more painful than death), other betrayals, loneliness, emptiness, meaninglessness, the existential vacuum. Victor Frankl says, quoting Nietzsche, “A man can endure almost any how if only he has a why.” The how is the circumstances, including the suffering. The why is a purpose and a meaning. This is not a theory; this is an observation. Frankl is a scientist. He observed this to be true in the laboratory of Auschwitz.
Now, there are two obvious solutions to physical pain: no and yes. No tries to abolish it, and this is quite natural and good. And the modern West is very successful in doing that. Yes tries to somehow accept pain, but change our inner attitude towards it. This is the answer of the ancient East, especially of Hinduism and Buddhism, and in the ancient West, of Stoicism, which is a kind of non-mystical Buddhism. The modern West prays, “Grant me the courage to change what can be changed,” the ancient East prays, “Grant me the serenity to accept what cannot be changed,” and both pray for the wisdom to know the difference.
If the West’s problem is failure, I think the East’s problem is success. For some people, at least, that is, for the spiritual athletes who practice Raja Yoga or Jnana Yoga, or the Buddhist Noble Eightfold Path, pain is abolished, by abolishing its root, desire. When there are no desires left, there are no frustrations left. Hindu or Buddhist Yoga can indeed succeed in killing off the desires. The true Buddhist does overcome all pain, but also all pleasure. All fear, but also all hope. All hate, but also all love. All misery, but also all joy. This is a remarkable achievement. But is it worth the price of the abolition of half our human nature? It looks like spiritual euthanasia: killing the patient, the desires, to cure the disease, pain.
I think, however, this is a misunderstanding. I must confess that the Buddhists that I have met have surprised me and impressed me with their peaceful alertness and spiritual aliveness. They certainly are not spiritually dead. But they have also surprised me with the inadequacy of their philosophy, their explanations. I must be as offensively honest with the East as I have been with the West, though, and protest that the freedom from pain is not worth the price. I will take the bitter with the sweet, thank you; the depth with the heights. Better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.
When we discover we cannot apply the American approach to pain, we grab for the eastern approach. This can certainly resolve our emotional problem with the existential threat, but does it resolve the threat itself? I think at the heart of the eastern approach is the assertion that there is no threat, the threat is an illusion, and if you are disciplined, and have time, strength and health enough to pursue it, you can convince yourself of the illusory nature of the threat and experience that anxiety no longer.
Good luck Susan. Sorry about the science.
Israel’s Existential Crisis
The destruction of Jerusalem and the Babylonian captivity were the existential crisis for the Hebrew people. Their armies defeated, their cities burned, their temple sacked and leveled their identity endangered, their faith in Yhwh as rescuer in tatters.
A word from the LORD comes to the prophet:
Isaiah 40:1–5 (NRSV)
1 Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. 2 Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. 3 A voice cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. 4 Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. 5 Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
There are few claims as audacious as those of Israel. That the author of this grand universe has a special relationship with them, and has crushed them. Now this God announces again a new thing. This author, this maker is coming, not coming in retributive anger, but coming to heal. The creation must prepare the way, for the creation has a master and he is coming.
The prophet is commanded to cry out, but the prophet doesn’t know what to cry.
What follows is a statement of that which is beyond doubt. I chose to hear it on the lips of the prophet rather than the herald. It is a rebuttal. Why bother crying to this creation and its people. People are like grass, they are faithless, fickle, temporary, weak, subject forces great and small that turn them back to dust.
This is what people are, but the word of the LORD, that word that brought the universe into being isn’t subject to the age of decay. Israel is asked to believe again.
Herald of Good Tidings
Jonah was commissioned to be a prophet of ill tidings, of destruction, of devastation. When the reprieve was given, he sulked that God did not destroy his enemies. Nineveh needed Jonah to be a prophet of good tidings, to announce that just as their condemnation had been announced now their reprieve was announced. Jonah should have led them in a party of celebration. Jonah should have been the the elder brother who joined the feast given for the Prodigal son, but Jonah was more like the elder brother as we left him, angry, accusing, demanding.
Jerusalem is now commanded to announce that the author of this universe will do a new thing. He will feed his starving flock, he will care for the weak and the young, he will carry them as a good shepherd and be gentle with mothers with their young. This author of the universe will invest in the stories of the sheep, and lead the stories towards the comfort, safety and security the sheep have dreamed of.
Waiting and Doubt
I understand doubt. Time in this universe sends doubt into a certain direction, towards what cannot be doubted, that the age of decay takes all and turns it to dust.
This word was given at least as late as the exile, and when the captives of Babylon were released to return home their experience was hardly the coming of the LORD that they had anticipated. Jerusalem would be subjected to what the universe has to offer. We have little doubt about what we see and loss is the most common thing the universe offers. Waiting without realized hopes and dreams leads to doubt.
“Is it you or should I be looking for another?”
Matthew 11:2–6 (NRSV)
2 When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3 and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4 Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5 the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6 And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
Christians believe that Jesus is God’s next chapter for the universe. Jesus was the fulfillment of the prophesy of the book of Isaiah. Christian believe that in the resurrected flesh of Jesus a new universe is born that will give birth to an entirely new cosmos. It sounds like crazy talk but this is what Christianity asserts. It declares that that which cannot be doubted must be undone.
At A Certain Point Even Doubters Must Choose
At some point we need to make up our minds. We are not fully in control of our doubts because doubt is part emotion. Emotions, however, are not actions or decision and in the context of doubt there will come a point where we must choose.
That which cannot be doubted, the fact that the universe eats all and turns it to dust given enough time may rule our decisions. It may rule by leading us to escape, despair, or grab what we can for the moments we’re alive. Another option is to believe the unbelievable, the story that the author of creation 1.0 has in Jesus Christ begun creation 2.0 and in that creation our individual stories that have begun with the age of decay will not conclude, but are only getting started.
Choice and belief lead to emotions and decisions. What decision will you make?