Saturday, March 31, 2007

First solution to the paradox of "believing all things"

I realized last night that the practice of "believing all things" logically calls on a person to believe1, for example, both that God exists and that God doesn't exist, or, equivalently, both to believe that God exists and to disbelieve it (which is ironic, given that believing all things seems such a positive moral and spiritual act).

Of course, "God exists" is logically incompatible with "God doesn't exist." They are mutually exclusive, they can't both be true—logically speaking. Note that miracles are literally logical contradictions. By definition, they violate "the Laws of Nature." But miracles are God things, right? Weird things can happen when it comes to God. The miracle of the universe itself (even if no other miracle occurred after the universe came into existence) introduces a sense of the uncanny: the mystery of being, the spine-tingle when you try to wrap your mind around the question: Why is there something rather than nothing?

If believing and disbelieving the same thing is a logical contradiction, then (according to Bertrand Russell, for example) anything whatsoever follows from it. That sounds like a disastrous situation, one that destroys our entire enterprise. Personally, however,I prefer to dare to go ahead and see whether anything insightful or interesting turns up.

In the first place, is "I believe that God exists" as incompatible with "I believe that God doesn't exist" as "God exists" is incompatible with "God doesn't exist"? Or does "believing that" add a new dimension? In any case, it seems a paradox. How could it be possible to believe two diametrically opposed things? In other words, what is the solution to the paradox of "believing (and disbelieving) all things"?

The first possible solution that comes to mind is that I may believe and disbelieve at different times, alternating from one to the other. Actually, this is not that unusual. A young man seriously infatuated with a girl can believe from a smile one moment that "she loves me," then from a frown the next that "she loves me not." I have experienced this. Perhaps you have too. And I have also experienced awakening with praise welling up from my body and spirit, and rising to meet the day believing that God exists and I'm in contact with Him, then, on another day—maybe after reading a book by Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, or Daniel Dennett?—becoming cold-eyedly "rational" and beginning to doubt it or outright disbelieve it, and maybe even concluding that my birth, life, and eventual death are "just Nature."

This reminds me of my wife's needlepoint:
Who plants a seed
beneath the sod
and waits to see
believes in DNA.
[My next post will examine another possible way to solve the paradox of "believing (and disbelieving) all things."]
________________________
  1. Remember, I'm investigating "belief" in the sense that we can't believe a thing that we know to be true, which is not so obvious as that we can't believe what we know to be false.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Fanaticism

My friend in the library told me this morning that he was going to "watch some [basket]ball this weekend." He said he was still feeling a little down over our local men's collegiate basketball team's failure to reach The Final Four. (Next day's front-page headline of Raleigh's News and Observer was "Tar Heels Collapse." Note, this was the front front page, not the sports front page. Basketball is big in Carolina.)

I told my library friend that that was the trouble with being a fanatic: you'll be disappointed a lot.

Hmm, he observed, "there are around three hundred Division A collegiate basketball teams. Most fans are going to be disappointed."

Remember that "fans" is short for "fanatics."

I talked with another sort of fan on the commute bus a couple of days ago. She's a devout Christian, and we've discussed religion. She knows I am not a devout Christian, but a skeptical one at best. I told her about my reading of Muhammad Asad's extraordinary memoir, The Road to Mecca. I told her he is the man who wrote the 12-pound book, The Message of the Qur'an. I told her I'm reading the Qur'an, in Thomas Cleary's English translation.

Well, my commute friend (we are friends; we respect and care about one another) frowned and warned me to be wary of Islam. "The Qur'an isn't the word of God."

"You seem pretty sure or that."

She affirmed that indeed she was. And she said it again, "The Qur'an isn't the word of God."

That's the other kind of fan I was referring to. Both types of fan don't "believe all things," obviously. Basketball fans don't believe that basketball is just a game. (I'd add "stupid" to that, but then, I guess I'd be a sort of fanatic myself.) My library friend did agree with me, however, when I said that if fans could step back and adopt "a more philosophical view of life" they'd be a lot happier.

And, of course, my Christian friend doesn't believe all things. In fact, she corrected my understanding of Paul's essay on charity (love) in his letter to the Corinthians. "He's talking about human relationships," she said, "about being open and accepting."

I can accept that, believe it. But I still believe the larger (if incorrect) interpretation of "believeth all things." It might be necessary to overcome fanaticism.

And frequent disappointment. I wonder how often my Christian friend is disappointed. She's a lovely person (and a beautiful woman). I would want happiness for her. Aside from her fanaticism, she deserves it.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Paradise is a man's own good nature

Another thing that struck me from my friend's conversation yesterday followed from my mentioning Ezra Pound, for "hold on to none" reminded me of some lines from The Cantos, and I mentioned this to my friend, who, being a learned man and a poet, immediately recited the lines to me, from the Pisan Canto:
What thou lovest well remains,
                          the rest is dross
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee....
"Not that that's the same thing at all," I said, "but the language...."

My friend added, "There's an Egyptian cartouche Pound uses in one of the cantos. It means, 'paradise* is a man's own good nature.'"

That struck me, and sticks, because it supports my recent decision to relax and enjoy life, exult in life as refracted through my own good nature.
___________________________
* My friend subsequently corrected my memory of what he said the cartouche meant: "In the quotation from the ancient Egyptian writer Kati, the word 'paradise' bears the connotation of 'painted paradise' or 'vision of paradise,' implying that this is not the real paradise, but the closest we mortals can conceive of it, given our imperfect vision."

Saturday, March 24, 2007

Believe all things, but hold on to none

On a walk through a nature preserve this morning with a friend, he told me that his aging cat had developed diabetes and his girlfriend was suggesting that he consult a cat psychic. I of course expressed some doubt about that, but he said he'd probably do it. "Who knows?" he asked rhetorically, "couldn't hurt."

Responding to my doubt, he added, "I tend to believe all things, but I hold on to none."

The first part of that reminded me of the little essay about charity, or love, in Saint Paul's letter to the Corinthians. "Charity believeth all things." I've often said that of myself. That is, that I believe all things, although I know that that might be hard for my readers to accept, having seen lately what a skeptic I've become.

But the second part of what my friend said, I liked that too. "Hold on to none." How unlike the man I saw later at Costco wearing a T-shirt to remind everyone that Jesus was nailed to the cross for us. This man may not believe all things, but he sure believes that. He holds on to it, counts on it.

But not my friend, and not me either. For in "hold on to none" I immediately recognized myself, although I'd never consciously practiced it, as my friend seems to. And I see this now as a way to understand my going from "blasted" to "buoyed by birdsong" over the last few days.

Let me try to explain that. My experience of being blasted resulted, I think, from pressing too hard to try to find something in religion that, damn it, I could hold on to. I became blasted from not finding any such thing anywhere I was turning.

But when a blog friend prompted me to tell her what, then, I would prefer to spend my time on, I easily and confidently said that I felt I was going to be okay. I would just relax, be my usual, morally upright self (love my neighbors and treat my enemies with respect but circumspection), and enjoy life. Exult in the sun and the wind, maybe write a lyric occasionally, interject some praise. Enjoy reading for interest the Qur'an, the Gnostic Gospels, Muhammad Asad's memoir, Ezra Pound's Cantos, John le Carré's novels.

And continue to tend to believe in angels, if it pleases me, believe that God exists, that Jesus was the son of God (and might even look a bit like Brad Pitt), that he died and rose again, that Muhammad was God's messenger...But now, especially after that walk in the woods this morning, I won't count on any of it.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Buoyed by birdsong!

Asked what I would rather spend my time on....

I was thinking of reading Le Carré, for example (rather than Connelly), simply loving my neighbors and, as much as possible, being "sapienter si sincere" (wisely, if sincerely) toward my enemies—without, that is, roiling about in more and more pointless-seeming "theologizings." That's all I was feeling. I was feeling that continuing to ride rollercoasters and go around and around the track was...unproductive. Maybe, instead, I would "go subliminal" (nonverbal), say nothing (to borrow from Wittgenstein) whereof we may not speak (speak coherently, sensibly).

Oh, maybe now and then cry out in a poem. Praise, perhaps. Lyrics, pæans, strophes.

Blessed relief! Ah, the sun, the wind!

Birdsong!

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Blasted

For several days, my mental state relative to "religious faith" has felt sort of...blasted. All confused. Sort of shut out from itself. Wanting to believe...something. Not believing...yet believing—despite a sense of loss of coherence among what I might call dogmatic propositions or "tenets of faith"—that nevertheless "all will be (or is) well." Maybe it's a feeling rather than a "belief." A sense of being all right, despite all.

For me, this seems to call into question the very idea of believing particular "religious propositions." As though I've attained, or ended up in, some sort of detachment—maybe indifference—to "religion."

It seems rather like the way I've come to feel about the novels of John Connolly. I recently read a couple of them and have become overfull with their mayhem and pervasive assumption of Evil. (If you haven't read Every Dead Thing or The Killing Kind, then believe me, the bad guys in Connolly's books are very, very bad.)

I mean, maybe I've "surfeited out" on religious stuff. My most recent read was Garry Wills's What Jesus Meant, and it ended up being a roller coaster ride. A short ride, because the book is barely 140 pages long, but a roller coaster ride nevertheless. The ride started with a steep ascent up the notion that Jesus was indeed a radical figure, much, much different from the nice guy generally portrayed, for example, in the Mormons' Jesus as Brad Pitt-lookalike. Jesus was, according to Wills, in many ways different from the usual conception. Not a bringer of peace, but of a sword, for example. Not a founder of a religion, but out and out anti-religious. Down with priests! Down with priestly functions!

But the ride straightened out. Jesus's essential message really was love. The only thing we have to do, brothers and sisters, is love the high and the low as though they are Jesus.

Then the concluding corkscrew turn around eschatological notions that seemed about as contrived as anything could be, leaving me dizzy and...blasted.

Maybe life's too short to spend one's time like this.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

"Bitter like death and hot like love"

Part of enjoying reading Muhammad Asad (not the Prophet Muhammad's) The Road to Mecca, the story of his encounter with Islam, is picking up many tidbits of "local color," such as this one:
...in Arabia coffee is freshly roasted for every pot. As soon as the beans are lightly tanned, he [his friend Zayd, his traveling companion in the 1920s] places them in a brass mortar and pounds them. Thereupon he pours some of the boiling water from the larger pot into the smaller, empties the ground coffee into it and places the pot near the fire to let it slowly simmer. When the brew is almost ready, he adds a few cardamon seeds to make it more bitter, for, as the saying goes in Arabia, coffee, in order to be good, must be "bitter like death and hot like love."
Mr. Asad is the author of a work I have mentioned: The Message of the Qur'an, a twelve-pound tome of almost 1,200 8.125" x 11.25" pages, which I am blessed by the good graces of a dear friend to have as a reference.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

What is to be done?

Hearing an echo of "what is to be done?" in the chambers of my mind, I googled the phrase and was reminded that Vladimir Illych Lenin published a little book under that title in 1902. Not quite what I had in mind when I asked the other day:
What, if anything, are we to do in the face of the existence of God, the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and God's message through Muhammad?
The first thing that now strikes me about my question is that it rarely gets asked. I mean, to hear other people talk about "the Lord" or "Our Savior" or "as Allah wills" you'd think that the existence of God, Jesus's having died for our sins, the Quran's telling us how to surrender to God, and so on all make it self-evident what we are to do, no questions asked.

But do they? And I'm not just thinking of intepretation, as in, "But, just what did Jesus mean when he said that we should love our neighbor as ourself?" or "What did Muhammad mean when he wrote that no responsible person can bear the burden of another?"

I had something more fundamental in mind, like first asking, "So what?" Not asking it dismissively, but as a prelude to considering what's really going on here. Considering why those things should matter, what our motives might be in doing one thing rather than another, whether it is possible that we really are free to choose, and what the significance of that might be.

I am of course still thinking on these things, and, in my own way, praying.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Praise God!

In my kitchen this evening I found myself praising God. And doing it so spontaneously I was rather surprised and had to wonder at myself. The immediate occasion was listening to some exalted string music performed by Julian Lloyd Webber and broadcast by our local classical music station, WCPE 89.7 FM, in Wake Forest, North Carolina. Praise God, indeed! Why don't I listen to more such music? Friday I had been affected similarly by a performance of Beethoven's Fifth Piano Concerto ("The Emperor") by the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, under the direction of Herbert von Karajan, broadcast by the University of Southern California's KUSC over the World Wide Web.

Today was special. In the morning, out in the yard raking leaves, I felt I was in church, exciting thoughts "about God" flowing through my mind, words flowing from my muse, but nothing manic feeling about it, so stately and calm and strong.
If Jesus had ever been going to come again,
I wish He had already done it in
    A year before the one
    My parents my life begun,
So I'd not now be in the slump I'm in,
To choose Christian or other cognomen—

For God exists, and Jesus His Son,
And Prophet Muhammad's not to shun.
But how thrilling, envigorating, and inspiring the whole week! Special on several fronts. Because of the blessed approach of spring, I walked four times up and down the hill from my office to the Carolina campus (a little over a mile one way). My body has been renewed and charged, especially sexually. (In springtime a young man's fancy—and an old man's too—turns not to baseball, but to sex! Throughout my life, whenever sexual energy has been flowing, so have my mental and spiritual energy, which is the secret, if anything is, why Youie was/is for me feminine.)

And I mustn't overlook another front: the provocative comments I've received from (and made back to) Brandon and Tom and Maliha, especially when I've put into the mix with them, quite by accident (or serendipity), my beginning to read a little book by Garry Wills: What Jesus Meant. [Wills is the author also of Papal Sin, Why I Am a Catholic, Saint Augustine, Saint Augustine's Childhood, Saint Augustine's Memory, Saint Augustine's Sin, Saint Augustine's Conversion, The Rosary, and What Paul Meant.]

Reading just Wills's foreword, "Christ Not a Christian," has shaken my world.

While you may know that I need to confess that I can be overly affected by the reading of a new book (as I suppose I was by my reading of Sam Harris's The End of Faith), I do have the sense already that I (and how many millions more of humans?) have been on the wrong track in trying to whittle Jesus Christ (or, as Wills says, "Jesus-Messiah") down as just a man like us. How many times have I written on this blog lately that I didn't believe that Jesus was the son of God in some way that you and I are not?

And I've been hopping about like St. Vitus seeming to agonize over the question of God's existence. Hey, God exists. I affirm it. Jesus was His son. (I'm even going along with God's being the Father rather than the Mother.) And I affirm that Muhammad was God's authentic Messenger, maybe even (as he claimed) the Final One.

So, now, the more interesting inquiry begins:
What, if anything, are we to do in the face of the existence of God, the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and God's message through Muhammad?

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

A proof for the existence of God

At lunch today I visited a physicist friend on the UNC campus. He's using magnetic resonance imaging to study the properties of metallic glass. For no particular interest (other than curiosity), I asked him point blank whether he believed in God. (I later explained to him that most of my posts here lately have been about religion.)

Being less direct than I am, and rather than simply answering my question with a "yes" or a "no" or an "I don't know," he started talking about how a friend of his, a biologist, had answered the same question. The biologist first said, "No, I don't." But some time later he changed his mind, even "became a Christian." It was all because of a proof he had discovered for the existence of God.

I got all excited. "Is the proof written down? Can you show me a copy?"

It was written down, and my friend had read it, but he didn't have a copy.

I asked him if he thought the proof was valid.

"Yes, it seemed valid." He said it was "a calculation" about something in evolution theory. His friend had started by thinking about the hypothesis, "If God doesn't exist..." and come up with it.

"So, if you thought it was valid...."

"I rejected it anyway. I didn't liked its conclusion."

"You mean, that God exists?"

"Right. For the moment anyway, I don't believe it."

His reaction seemed so familiar to me! I was reminded of my interchange with Tom Sheepandgoats. He tells me that there are passages in the Bible (I believe that's where, and I'm paraphrasing, so I may not have it just right) that clearly establish that man was meant by God to "live forever." I'm willing to read these passages (if I can find them or have them pointed out to me), but I know that I'm still going to have the "so what" demurral about it. So what if the Bible says that? The old "hearsay" problem would intervene. I wrote about the hearsay problem weeks ago and discovered that Thomas Paine had already written about it in 1793 or thereabouts—I had read his very writing fifty years ago (The Age of Reason, a highly instructive book for any young or old rebel). Parts of the Bible might have been a revelation from God to some of the people who wrote it, but to us today it is no better than hearsay. It was not revealed to us. (I haven't thought about this lately, but I think it's still cogent.)

By the way, my physicist friend is Chinese and a citizen of the People's Republic of China. His wife is a Muslim.

Monday, March 5, 2007

The leap of faith

I realized something at some point in the twenty-four hours since I wrote about the insoluble problem of the goodness and/or evilness of God (if God exists). I realized that I seem willy nilly to have placed myself in the very situation for which Søren Kierkegaard proposed a "leap of faith." That is, if the problem of evil—as it is known classically—is insoluble, then the only way to "solve" it is to abandon reason and take a leap of faith.

Am I willing to do that?

Another Jehovah's Witness, who signed his comment on yesterday's post as "Brandon," suggests that I may have a motive for not being willing. He says that
many people [of whom, he implies, I am one] refuse to believe in God not because of the evidence, but because they don't want to be accountable to a higher power's set of moral standards...also [they] don't want an answer to life's many "big questions"' because then they would be forced to act. However, if they allow themselves to be stuck in a state of "analysis paralysis"' then they can continue on with their life. People in general resist change. So it's no wonder that they ignore or disbelieve things that would cause them to change.
So, I'm trying to make it easy for myself, is that what I'm doing? Would someone who knows me a bit better than Brandon does (after a cursory look at a few of my posts) care to comment on this?

Brandon goes on to demonstrate that he himself has taken the leap. He adduces a number of proofs from the Bible that God isn't at all evil, it's man himself and Satan!
Why must God be evil? The Bible says that man has dominated man to his injury. (Ecclesiastes 8:9)

Also, if you remember the account of Job, it was Satan, not God, who did those evil things to Job. Also note what James 1:13 says: "When under trial, let no one say: 'I am being tried by God.' For with evil things God cannot be tried nor does he himself try anyone."
Brandon suggests that I could ask a better question:
Why does God permit evil, whether it be Satan or wicked people?
And he even supplies the answer:
The answer is that He will not let it continue indefinitely.
And just a little while longer, and the wicked one will be no more;
And you will certainly give attention to his place, and he will not be.

But the meek ones themselves will possess the earth,
And they will indeed find their exquisite delight in the abundance of peace. (Psalms 37:10-11)
The reason He is allowing it now is so that man can try to rule himself. Remember that in the Garden of Eden man and Satan challenged God's right to rule and [asked?] whether men can or should rule themselves. So He is permitting [men to rule themselves] so that that issue will be settled once and for all. Would it be just for God just to kill Adam and Eve and start over? Wouldn't God look like a tyrant then? Remember that there were angels watching this, and doing so would have just given Satan's claims weight.
Brandon asks me (with a straight face, I'm sure):
What do you think about all this?
Well, I really hesitate to say, but my muse offers a limerick:
There was a Bible-quoting J's Witness
Who indicted my faithful unfitness;
    "Open your eyes and read," pled he,
    "God's plan is there for all to see!
You paralyzed and lazy God's witless!"

Sunday, March 4, 2007

"Problems will always torment us..."

...wrote Arthur [Bancroft] M. Schlesinger, Jr. (1917-February 28, 2007),
because all important problems are insoluble: that is why they are important. The good comes from the continuing struggle to try and solve them, not from the vain hope of their solution.
On Friday, in a comment on the problem of evil, I myself wrote about one important problem:
I meant to contrast my "wide-eyed sobriety" with a person's typical wistfulness when it comes to God (and to most everything else important); that is, we typically believe what we want to believe.
Do we tend to believe what we want to believe when it comes to such problems just in order to avoid that "continuing struggle to try and solve them"? The continuing struggle in my case seems to have resulted in my somber disillusionment, to quote my friend Tom Sheepandgoats's comment on the "problem of evil" post.

Tom offers me a way to get around the impasse of this particular one of Schlesinger's insoluble important problems—the problem whether God (if God exists) is both good and evil. He suggests that I assent to the Jehovah's Witnesses' contention that the Bible shows that we humans (and other animals? I asked Tom) were intended to live forever, which I take it the Jehovah's Witnesses interpret as meaning that we, in fact, do live forever—that is, that we will be miraculously resurrected and find that our suffering and death here on earth were illusions and we didn't suffer that much, really, however many times we may have been raped and stabbed or whatever, and that God really was totally good after all.

I am skeptical that Tom and the Jehovah's Witnesses have found by their Biblical interpretation a reliable way to avoid Schlesinger's vain hope. Of course they have found a way to avoid it, but you've probably already guessed that I can't share their solace, for I doubt that their interpretation is reliable.

I can already hear Tom ask, "Well, would you like to remove your doubt by studying the text and our interpretation of it?" In asking that, he would be challenging me to put up or admit that I don't so much doubt the interpretation as assume that it's wishful thinking and inherently unreliable.

Am I putting too much faith in Schlesinger's contention (by implication) that this problem is and must remain insoluble? Is this skeptic's faith any better than the faith of the believer that "whatever the Bible [or the Quran or the Book of Mormon or some other book held to be 'God's word'] says is so must therefore be so"?