Jim Pivarski's Manifesto
September 16, 2006Back to Jim Pivarski's Home Page
Melanie called this my manifesto because I spent so
many hours scribbling away at it. It is an effort to present myself
to the world, regardless of the fact that few will read it. It is a
way of organizing the swarm of thoughts that pestered me. It is also
an attempt to encapsulate Everything succinctly, and I'm proud to say
that it is only ten pages long.
When we moved from Ithaca to Texas, I kept finding loose sheets of
paper on which I rambled about topics that occupy a sentence or two in
the final product. Many of the metaphors used here appear in a more
awkward form on sheets dated from 2001 and 2002. I had no idea that I
was working so long on this, that it occupied so much of my effort
over the past five years. I'm happy to say that I'm thoroughly
pleased with the result.
This article now has a message board.
When we moved from Ithaca to Texas, I kept finding loose sheets of paper on which I rambled about topics that occupy a sentence or two in the final product. Many of the metaphors used here appear in a more awkward form on sheets dated from 2001 and 2002. I had no idea that I was working so long on this, that it occupied so much of my effort over the past five years. I'm happy to say that I'm thoroughly pleased with the result.
This article now has a message board.
As a child, I liked nothing more than to go off on my own and think. My bus ride home from school was almost an hour long, so I sat alone and philosophized. At home, I liked to walk in the woods and converse with myself, like Calvin and Hobbes. Still today, I identify with my ideas. In this article, I hope to sharpen those ideas by expressing them succinctly, and to have something to point to as a self-portrait, to say, "this is what I look like."
But to say where I am, I must give some account of where I've been. Being a child who loved science fiction and a simple, stark outlook, I quickly came to have an atheistic materialist view of the universe. Human existence was a product of mere chance, emotions were an artifact, and there was nothing, really, except "atoms and the void." Ironically, when I thought about these things on the cosmic scale, I was drenched in the emotion known as awe. As I grew older, the education system introduced me to Melville, Dostoevsky, and Camus, and a dark friend named Bethany introduced me to Spinoza and Kierkegaard, which helped me to deepen my thinking considerably. The bedrock of philosophy I thought I had found in materialism turned out to be another illusion, and I fell through the bottomless hole beneath.
I can use the so-called "mind/matter problem" as an example of what I mean. We humans are made of matter, our brains are made of matter, and yet we think. We know about matter through our senses, how it behaves, and that it passively obeys laws of physics, without choice. If I poke someone's brain, I can make his knee jerk. Electric stimuli can make people remember things that may not have happened. Hormones and drugs can have even more profound effects. So the brain is a natural object, and our thoughts and sentience are natural phenomena. As a child, I thought about this in terms of the following analogy: my cat liked to huddle inside paper bags left in the living room. Inside the bag, she would see the living room as being enclosed in a ring of brown paper, as though the room were inside the bag, while the bag was actually inside the room. Just so, I thought, it was a simple fact that our minds, which seem to encompass the world by framing all that we can think and know about it, are themselves raw matter, made of simpler subsystems of neutrons, made of atoms and the void.
But through these discussions in high school, particularly with Bethany, I became much more self-critical. The view presented in the preceding paragraph self-destructed when I applied it to myself. If my mental states are arrangements of atoms, there's nothing to differentiate true thoughts from false thoughts. Correcting a falsehood or learning something new is just a matter of becoming rearranged into another state, a state which is no better than the last. However, the claim I wished to make about atoms and the void was definitely intended as a claim of fact, and being truthful about it was intended to be an improvement. I could either give up on this line of reasoning, as I later did, or push it further, as I did in college. Rather than gaining certainty about my self as a thinking being, I lost certainty about the reality of physical matter because it can only be known by the mind, which is made of this hypothetical stuff called matter. There is nothing but mush and the void. Ironically, I was a physics major.
In college, I had no philosophy--- what I had was atheism pushed to the limit of recognizing that nothing can exist without God, and that God does not exist. I really became skeptical of being itself. It is all an illusion; we are non-existent. (Maybe.) I began to delight in paradox; after all, there was no escape from it. So what changed my mind? or rather, kept it from evaporating altogether? Primarily it was another woman, my future wife Melanie, who has a very clear, very deep, Catholic philosophy. Over a period of years, I came to appreciate how one can have a rational outlook on the world and be religious, too, so I reconsidered the intellectual choices I had made in childhood. For much of this time, I was neither religious nor atheistic. But in order to tell this as an engaging story, I will present it as a single, dramatic event.
That event happened in the summer after my sophomore year (1997), which I spent at FermiLab, away from Melanie, plucking at a computer terminal. I was completely detached, from people and from the universe, in the open tundra of the Chicagoland prairie. Walking along a train track, I saw a slowly-moving train, which I tried to jump to see where it would go. (I missed.) I crossed the metal beam supporting an abandoned bridge over the Wisconsin Dells to see what the experience of walking in the sky would be like. I drove from cornfield-land through Detroit to Canada, alone and non-stop, using only the sun for directions. But all of this inquisition was really ennui; I had no real interest in the world I didn't believe in--- it was a way of saying to myself what I thought of it. Meanwhile, at the computer terminal, I was failing to accomplish the task my supervisor wanted. I couldn't understand that he wanted something so simple and straightforward, and I didn't listen hard enough to know precisely what it was. So when he visited my comfortable enclave of humming computers, I showed him all the deep and interesting progress I was making, the programs which write other programs to do things more intelligently, (while perhaps while he was trying to say something,) and he shouted, "LISTEN! Will you shut up and LISTEN?"
The racks shook. The humming fans ceased. I hit a new ground in philosophy, hard. I did listen, and I did accomplish the one, simple task that summer. But I also realized that all the time I had wandered in the woods, conversing intelligently with myself, I did a scant amount of listening and watching the world around me. Because I believed that imagination was more important than knowledge, I spent my time thinking and not learning.
It was in listening to Melanie that I found another way to think, deeply. It was an incentive to take Christianity seriously, and therefore to take Christians seriously, which opened up centuries of authors I could now read as peers. I took some classes on the history of religion and others on theology, and I formally converted to Catholicism in my senior year.
I'd like to conclude this section by explaining exactly why and how I believe in God, which will involve defining some terms in a more technical way than they are typically used. The mind/matter problem I discussed above illustrates the distinction between objective and subjective knowledge. The word "objective" is usually used appropriately, it describes our understanding of a thing from the outside. If I say, "I know such-and-such," such-and-such is the object of my sentence. But "subjective" knowledge is not necessarily vague or opinion-driven, as normal usage would have it; "subjective" knowledge is one's understanding of one's own self, by simply being one's self. "I think, therefore I am" is a subjective statement while "My brain is squishy" is objective. I am both an object and a subjective being; a rock is merely an object. Thrown from a roof, we both fall at a rate of 32 feet per second per second, but I know that I am falling.
Next, subjective knowledge is prior to objective knowledge, so my subjective knowledge is at least as real as anything I objectively know about the world. By "prior," I mean that objective knowledge is meaningless without subjective knowledge. If I don't know that I am, I can't know anything else. In the same sense of the word "prior," trees are prior to forests, thoughts are prior to knowledge, and existence is prior to action. In each case, you just can't talk about the latter if you don't have the former. Now I can define God: God is that which is prior to all things.
God is usually defined as the First Cause, the only thing which is not caused by anything else, so we imagine a tree of causes starting from a single root named God. I intend to broaden this definition. We (today) think of "causes" as events in time, which would put the First Cause at the beginning of time, and possibly nowhere else: a watchmaker-God, not the God people care about. Moreover, it is at least conceivable that the universe had no beginning, and there was no First Cause. (The well-established Big Bang theory in physics is not the final word on the instant of creation. The "Big Bang" describes the development of the universe from an extremely dense, hot gas, but at very early, even hotter times, we don't know how particles behave. In fact, there are strong arguments that a period of exponential inflation preceded the more modest explosion we observe with telescopes. Exponential inflation does not need to have a beginning.) While an infinite chain of causes does not have a First Cause, it still requires an explanation--- a First Prior that makes the existence of such a thing meaningful. If we could push science to its conclusion and explain every thing in the universe in terms of every other thing, a complete set of causes and effects, we still would not be able to answer, "Why does anything exist at all?" The least we can do is to answer that question with an empty label, to say that the reason anything exists at all is "God." Why doesn't God need a prior, something to explain God's existence? That's what makes God special: God is the only self-sufficient thing, or perhaps the only thing that is prior to itself.
This definition of God is one that I think even conventional atheists can agree with. It is to use the word "God" in the way that Albert Einstein (an atheist) did. But all the theologians I have read would probably be comfortable with this definition as well. For them, the actual content of religious belief is not to say whether God exists, but to answer to the question, "What is God like?" Is God an equation? a mystic force? a lover? a paradox? All that this definition really excludes is a greybeard with lightning bolts in his pocket, a powerful entity that lives in the universe but isn't more fundamental than it (like Q in Star Trek). I haven't found anyone who seriously calls such a being "God," though everyone vaguely thinks that a lot of people do.
So what do I think God is like? Since I am a subjective being, subjectivity can't be utterly foreign to God, so I believe that God is some sort of subjective being as well. The fact that I can say, "I am" means that there is some I-amness in God. Otherwise, where would my subjective existence have come from? I would have to invent another, deeper, First Prior to account for that. I find it appropriate, then, to refer to God in anthropomorphic ways, to use personal pronouns, and to speculate about how God "feels" about this or that. This is why I say that God is at least an anthropomorphic being, though not exactly like a human intelligence. For instance, we can imagine God as having childlike feelings about a frustrated dung-beetle while at the same time hurling a comet into the earth. I also claim that God does not have the same relationship to time as we do, considering that he invented it (which is to say, he is prior to it). For God, the past would not be inexorable and the future would not be uncertain--- mystics call such an experience "the ever-present Now."
I would go further and say that God is also prior to logic. God is not a powerful being working within the constraints of logic; he is the author of logic. He can therefore also violate it. A favorite paradox posed by atheists is, "Can God create a stone so heavy he cannot lift it?" Rather than complaining that this is a meaningless question, I would answer, "Yes, free will is such a stone." I am freely capable of opposing God's intentions, even though he makes me and my actions. It is very much a paradox.
For most of my life, I have said that I don't understand poetry. I have an idea of what it's supposed to be: words arranged in a way that is innately pleasing, like music. Perhaps even deep--- but if all that is to be conveyed is an idea, there would be no reason to resort to poetry when a philosophical tract would do. So I read poetry, closed my eyes, and tried to feel whatever it is I was supposed to feel. Nothing came. I concluded that while there was probably something in poetry, I was deaf to it.
My new interest in poetry was probably kindled by hymn lyrics. I sang in my church's choir in grad school, and singing really gives you a chance to see music from the inside, seeing how all the parts fit together. It was also my first serious exposure to music with words, or at least words that matter to the piece as a whole. (I didn't feel the same way about Beethoven or Pink Floyd.) Without looking for it, certain refrains and verses caught my attention as being surprisingly profound:
No storm can shake my inmost calmThis seems like the same quixotic image I found in Albert Camus's novels: everything falls away, there is nothing on which to stand, and yet we are happy. I imagine the rock to be a little stump peeking out of the flood, buffeted by hurricane winds that will soon overwhelm the whole planet. The author has no hope, and yet despair is unimaginable because he has just noticed that love is lord of heaven and earth. (This part differs from Camus.) Well! How can I keep from singing?
while to this rock I'm clinging.
If love is lord of heaven and earth,
how can I keep from singing?
Also, this pair of verses deeply impressed me:
I, the Lord of snow and rain,I can conjure no image more overpowering than an immensity of snow, falling gently. And also nothing more intimate. The second verse can be read in a sweet way, but one day I realized that I was singing, "I will break their hearts." If I could expound on this sudden, agonizingly lovely realization, I would.
I have borne my people's pain.
I have wept for love of them.
They turn away...
I will break their hearts of stone,
Give them hearts for love alone.
I will speak my words to them.
Whom shall I send?
Perhaps in the excitement of this discovery I'm exaggerating the importance of poetry, but I have come to believe that the primary truth of religion is poetic. This is to say that subjective existence is far more real than objective existence, as appears to be the case--- subjective reality contains objective reality (see previous section). The Catholic church we have joined in Texas has been making a special point of the Real Presence, the doctrine that the bread and wine we eat in Mass really is Christ's body and blood, and not just a metaphor. I quite agree that he is laying on the table, waiting to be consumed, but I feel that it actually matters more that it is metaphor; the poetic reach of the act is a more fundamental reality. The objective fact is real, but it simply reflects and reminds us of this profound truth.
If you were God and you decided to make a universe, presumably there would be something you want to express with your work of art: it's a kind of cosmic poem, in which there's something that can be better expressed in the new physical reality than in any other art form. Just as it would be droll to replace a poem with an essay that "explains" it, this universe should speak for itself. Similarly, it would be a calamity if the audience understood every syllable but didn't get the meaning, the reason it was created. It seems to me that insisting on an objective fact at the expense of its meaning is the second kind of mistake, unless the point of saying that it is not "merely symbolic" is to say that it is not "mere," not a human invention, or not insignificant. Objective reality is God's metaphor, and we should pay attention to what God is trying to say.
Religion, in my definition, is an attempt to tell the universe as a story. To describe what I believe religiously would be for me to try to explain what kind of story I think that is. I believe that the universe is a tragedy, and that God is a grand tragedian.
Tragedy is a word that we've lost, since it's a word whose meaning has changed, and no other word has filled its former place. I do not mean that the universe is a terrible loss, as a TV news reporter would describe a bus crash. I mean that it is an extravagantly profound and painfully compassionate story. Before I was introduced to tragedy, I wondered why anyone would want to tell or hear a story that causes sadness. What I didn't know then is that there is a paradoxical joy in tragedy, a love of sadness, and that tragedy is more about awe and beauty than depression.
When I say that the universe is tragic, I do at least mean that it is soaked in suffering. This is well-known and is often taken as a problem for or an argument against the existence of a benevolent God. But pain is so predominant in our world that it must be a key to understanding God and his universe. Suffering is built into the food chain and the concept of sacrifice, and should therefore be central to both naturalistic and religious inquiries into God and his art.
When a human author creates a tragedy, such as Sophocles's Oedipus Rex, he creates and inflicts a character whom he loves. Oedipus slowly learns, to his horror, of his own ignobility. It is clear that Sophocles cares about Oedipus and sympathizes with him, but Sophocles doesn't use his power as author to lessen Oedipus's suffering, either by hiding the information or simply making it not true. He slowly stirs Oedipus's awareness so that he can suffer with him. In fact, Sophocles was probably trying to express something about the universe around him, in which he, Sophocles, is the character pained by God. Compare this with God's response to Job in the Old Testament, when Job complained of his suffering: "The cosmos is vast and waste," God says, "and I have created monsters!" (to paraphrase). Suffering is awful and delicious at the same time. It hurts, and we can't really enjoy suffering, yet it has something to do with extravagance and adventure, and the reason the world was made at all.
It may seem ironic to describe Christianity as a tragedy, since this religion is known for positing a blissful future life. How can a religion that touts the ultimate happy ending accommodate tragedy? Early in my conversion, I thought that I might have to give up tragedy altogether as being incompatible with Christianity. But this was too simple an interpretation. Christianity is not about postponing joy, it is about finding joy in suffering. The same Kingdom of God is "within us" as is in store for us. I find this especially in the last lines of St. Francis's prayer,
It is in giving that we receive,Eternal life is experienced in dying, rather than simply after it, much like giving is a gift and forgiving is a release. One might wonder if the afterlife is even pleasant in the normal sense. Heaven may be a profound understanding of sadness that comes from being infused with God.
in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and in dying that we are born into eternal life.
I also get this impression from reading the Bible. I was unemployed for a summer after graduating from college and my new wife was a live-in counselor for a pre-college program, so I lived the first three months of my marriage as a monk. These were also my first months as a confirmed Catholic, so I spent the entire time reading theology from the original sources and reading the Bible from beginning to end, with footnotes. My primary intention was to get an overview; I would have a lifetime to focus on the details. I also learned that it is dangerous to interpret some authors in terms of the others, as I'm about to do, because they span several thousand years and lived in different cultures. An overall interpretation would therefore overlook what the particular authors had to say, but my interest as a religious person, rather than a Bible scholar, is in what God is trying to communicate using history, rather than what the authors intended. The authors' intentions are a part of that story, but they are not the narrators. I believe that the Bible documents a growth of awareness, like Oedipus's, in what it means to be loving human beings and how we fail in the only criterion that matters. It is therefore a tragedy.
The earliest acts described in the Bible shock us with their audacity, and only the worst interpreters of the Bible suggest that we should follow in their example. In some cases, even the biblical authors paint the scenes in a negative light. When Jacob, the ancestor of the Israelites, cheated his brother Esau out of his inheritance, the Israeli author writing centuries later sides with the dispossessed. From Genesis to Judges, no one seems to have a sense of good and evil apart from us and them. When we make this mistake today, we hide it or try to rationalize it. The people in these ancient stories seem to have been entirely sincere in their ignorance.
The situation gradually changes. Moses's presentation of the law largely curbs the people's callousness, commanding them not to trip blind people and such, by edict. But there is little recognition of the law's motivation. Only now and then is a pronouncement that one ought to not lie with one's brother's father's wife followed up with an exclamation that seems to be a realization of disgust: "For that is your mother-in-law!"
The real breakthrough begins with David, who is the first person the the narrative describes as having much compassion, and particularly the first to have compassion for his enemies. King Saul was trying to kill him, but when David heard of Saul's death, he lamented. This story repeats itself several times. Someone tried to usurp David's power, one of David's generals killed the usurper, and David burst into tears, especially when the usurper was Absalom, his son. David's generals, with their dripping swords, stared in wonder as he collapsed and cried for his son. They couldn't understand his mysticism.
The most important change happened when David rigged a battle to have his friend Uriah killed, out of desire for Uriah's wife. The prophet Samuel brought him a case to be judged, in which a man stole his neighbor's beloved sheep. This roused David to pronounce the sentence of death. When Samuel exclaimed, "You are the man!" David was stunned. He, himself, was the villain! Not only could his enemies sin against him, but he, himself, could sin! He expressed something of what happened inside of him in Psalm 51,
I know my offense; my sin is always before me...
You are just in your sentence, blameless when you condemn...
My sacrifice, God, is a broken spirit; do not spurn a broken, humbled heart.
I believe that this experience of emptiness is enlightenment. It reminds me of times in which failure and loss makes me feel like my soul is pouring out through my feet, leaving me with no strength to stand. It makes me think of the koan of Chiyono, who, despite her best efforts, spilled a pail of water.
In this way and that I tried to save the old pailAt this point, according to the koan, her eyes were opened.
since the bamboo strip was weakening and about to break,
until at last the bottom fell out.
No more water in the pail!
No more moon in the water!
In the subsequent books of the Bible, stories of heroes and kings give way to stories of amateur prophets, who act as flag-bearers for this new vision. These prophets, unlike the professionals hired by the king's court, saw moral failure and the coming of divine judgment in Israel as much as in the other nations.
Among these prophets is Jesus of Nazareth, the descendant of David and Uriah's wife. David's kingdom had long since disappeared; Jesus lived in a modern, cosmopolitan world, in which Judea was a religious-political experiment seeking to revive ancient Israel, carefully controlled by the Romans. (I think that Zionism under the British Mandate is an apt analogy.) The countryside was thick with reformers and movements. Jesus began as a follower of John the Baptist, but "he was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness." When he returned, he was charged with something; his personality was unrecognizable. He began his own ministry.
Jesus toured the country, preaching and exhorting like the other reformers, but without a political plan or a rational code of conduct. His moral teachings were not systematic, or in some cases, sane; they expressed instead God's perception of human actions. For instance, it would be insane to prosecute verbal insults in the same way as murder, but to say that they are the same to God, as Jesus does in his Sermon on the Mount, makes us more acutely aware of the tragedy of sin.
Unlike the prophets before him, who acted as ambassadors of or even mouthpieces for God, Jesus hinted that he was God himself, using religious metaphor. The reformers he most closely resembled, the Pharisees, were scandalized and ultimately brought him to trial for blasphemy. In order for this trial to end in execution, several sociological miracles had to occur. The Judean activists who hated the Romans had to flatter the Romans to get them involved in the case. Roman jurisprudence was cruel, but strictly civil, yet somehow it found a man to be guilty of Jewish blasphemy. The crowds of Jerusalem, usually on the brink of revolution at Passover-time, chanted, "We have no king but Caesar." And finally, Herod and Pilate, king and governor of the same territory, "became friends that day." It seems as though the whole world had to come unjointed, exposing a little of what lay beyond, in order to get Jesus on the cross. God himself participated in the sacrifice.
As for Jesus, he dropped his head and sang in his childhood tongue, "My God, my God, O why have you forsaken me?" There is a poetic paradox here: Jesus is God, but he is empty of God, empty of everything. No more moon in the water!
Jesus's descent into Hell is a scene for us to paint, rather than one that can be presented historically. We were given enough leads during his lifetime: the seed dies, it is buried underground, and it rises up a hundred-fold. Dante describes it as a triumphant entry, in which light poured into the darkness like a flood, toppling the most ancient of towers and walls, walls which can never be rebuilt. One of my favorite iconic images depicts Jesus, dragging his cross across the plains of Hell, reaching between the stones to release Adam and Eve. Hell, like Heaven, is a spiritual state: it is the loss of God. By losing God, Jesus was in Hell before he died. Maybe Jesus's death and resurrection is God's expression of his own victory over self-doubt. God, as the Universal Prior, is uncreated, so there is nothing which makes him real except his own self. Perhaps a part of God is the doubt of his own existence and his victory over that doubt: "My name is I Am." Perhaps the whole universe was created to express that theme.
When Jesus returned, he was changed again. He spoke and acted differently, and was not recognized. Though always in some sense divine, before his death he was still groping for God:
I have come to set the earth on fire, and how I wish it were already blazing! There is a baptism with which I must be baptized, and how great is my anguish until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to establish peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division!After his resurrection, he appears among frightened disciples, saying, "Peace be with you," breathing God on them. It is as though death were a more austere kind of wilderness, making life after resurrection as different from what came before as his ministry was from his quiet obscurity as a carpenter. This change was so compelling that his devoutly Jewish followers interpreted it in terms of the most unjewish of pagan mythologies--- the death and rebirth of God.
The Church grew out of this mix of pagan and Jewish philosophies, worshiping a God who was both ideal, invisible, and pure, and human, sensual, and complicated. As a whole, the Church maintained the theme of the prophets, that we are not automatically favored by God, and added Jesus's emphases on God's forgiveness being free, finding life in death, and the closeness of God as a lover. I hope that the Church continues to mix, because we can learn from the experience of Buddhists as well. If we're honest and careful, we can do so without losing the centrality of Jesus Christ.
But what about all that corruption? Isn't the Catholic Church the most insincere, corrupt institution on earth? Yes and no. In certain times and places, Catholics, and even the Catholic officials, have done staggering, unbelievable things. But if the Catholic people truly lost their core of integrity, the whole bloated organization would have collapsed centuries ago. What keeps the Church going is its self-conscious awareness of why it was founded, a realization that keeps bubbling to the surface, like a man trying to wake up. There are as many stories in Catholic history that astonish me with innocence as with cynicism.
I think the following story illustrates the way that the Church miraculously continues to function as an inspiring force, despite its history. In 1914, the institutional Church took a pacifist stance toward the looming war in Europe. This stance couldn't be regarded as entirely altruistic: centuries of political entanglement undermined the Church's position, and ulterior motives could be interpreted in the pope's call for peace. Sensing his powerlessness, Benedict XV requested a truce only on Christmas, but he was ignored by both sides. And yet, on the battlefield, against the will of their superiors, British and German troops crawled out of their trenches and played soccer on the icy mud of No Man's Land. Even when the Church has no credibility, the memory of why it was formed was strong enough for battle-weary soldiers to venture into shooting range.
Inspiring as this is, it's not a story with a happy ending. After a few days of trading belt buckles and family photographs, the young men returned to their trenches, and, a week later, resumed fighting. The only lasting impact of the Christmas Truce was that the soldiers afterward knew the names and families of the people they shot and killed. That impact may not be significant on the scale of the world theater, but it must have completely transformed the men involved.
Thus the tragedy continues, and the corrupt Church is a part of that tragedy. Since the late Middle Ages, many groups have been founded to try to leap over this mess and and recreate the Church as it was in the decades immediately following the resurrection. Mainstream Protestant denominations are the children of these movements, mellowed by age, but attempts to clean the slate and start over are as common today as perhaps they have ever been. As a Catholic, I believe in living in the Church as it is, shame-faced with history, and that we are called to continual reform in a brown, brown world.
I enjoy thinking about what the world is like; it's much more fun than doing anything about it. But ultimately, what we really need to know is how to live our lives. Every moment, another opportunity to do something passes, but we can wait forever to understand the big picture. It was in this spirit that I looked forward to the day I would become Catholic, when I would begin to make ethical decisions. Religious life, from the perspective of one who lived without principles, seemed to be full of dilemmas. Strangely, in the years that I have been a practicing Catholic, I haven't encountered anything that required intense deliberation. Even Catholicism, infamous for its rigid scruples, hasn't altered the way I would live my life. It isn't Catholicism that keeps me from gallivanting with loose women, it is the fact that ultimately, in a deep way, I wouldn't enjoy it.
Moreover, the system of natural moral law that I expected to install as a rule for my life doesn't make sense as a philosophical concept. Any dictum proscribing or restricting behavior does so on the level of the human-interpreted world, rather than the natural world, and is therefore subject to human definitions. God can provide an impression of what right living is like, but not explicit instructions; the instructions must be human interpretations.
Let me explain. I believe that we live in two overlapping worlds: an objective, physical world of matter, energy, and space-time, and an artificial world of objects, relationships, attributes, qualities and purposes. In the seamless continuum of nature, we draw boundaries and selectively identify meaningful entities. When I open my eyes, I see the mash of atoms before me as a pen, and that pen has well-defined borders which distinguish it from the surrounding air and my hand. My pen is more real than Macbeth's impalpable knife, because unlike a hallucination, matter fills the space occupied by the pen and this matter is distinct from air in a way that can be quantified. We must remember, though, that the quantification scheme is itself a human invention. Distinguishing the pen from the air is as much an interpretation as distinguishing letters of the alphabet from squiggles and ink splotches on paper, and good expressions from poor word choice.
Morality seems to live in the world we create, rather than the purely natural world. This is because morality concerns fairness, intentions, suffering, and mercy, rather than raw matter. The meaning of a moral law is subject to human definition because it lives in a world we defined. Thus, a natural law, proceeding from the lips of God, can't be objective and immutable. The dispute over abortion and the euthanasia of comatose patients illustrates this point: everyone agrees that thou shalt not kill a living person, but they disagree about the definition of a living person. In the world of computers, which lies between pure nature and human ideas, I can't even comprehend software copyright issues while I'm thinking about bit-by-bit operations. I have to start thinking like a human again, regarding data streams as potentially meaningful, before fairness and compensation begins to make sense.
This is not to say that moral law is less real or less important because it is not natural and objective, a point I emphasized in section one when I said that God, too, is a subjective being, and in section two when I said that metaphor is as real and as significant as objective reality. Morality is artificial as art is artificial, drawing on the symbolism we have created to produce a very real, perhaps inescapable, aesthetic response. It is in a kind of super-aesthetics, an appreciation of beauty that is more exigent than mere taste, that the real power of morality lies. If God has given us this life as a test, it is not an athletic competition with well-defined rules, but an art project with a well-defined sense of beauty. He asks us to invent, not select, goodness.
So the question is, "What is God's vision of beauty?" There are competing moral aesthetics just as there are competing philosophies. In Jesus's time, the prevailing sense among Gentiles and Jews was that purity is good--- they divided the world by quality and rejected the wicked part. To the Greek philosophers of the time, evil was often identified with corporeality and sensuality. To the Jewish Pharisees, evil was often identified with the Greeks, and the Greeks with corporeality and sensuality. Thus, when the Pharisees emphasized Jewish customs as the right way to live, they sought to cleanse the canvas of everything that was ugly, slough off the dead skin and present God with a picture of holiness, lived in every meal, holiday, and social gathering. Jesus rejected this where it interfered with love and true compassion.
He had even harsher words for vengeance, another competing moral mood. Sometimes the need to take revenge is enforced as a moral standard, with those who fail to avenge themselves villanized as cowards. Jesus couldn't tolerate this. Instead, he championed weakness and even encouraged the oppressor's whip from below. His Beatitudes paint a vision of meekness as virtue, ending with "Blessed are you when they revile you and persecute you, and utter all kinds of evil against you." He may as well have said, "Beautiful are you."
But the most significant for me is the way that Jesus rejected esteem as the arbiter of behavior. Jesus was a holy fool. This is most apparent in his public humiliation on the cross, in what seemed like an obvious mistake to nearly everyone. The moral system which advocates the avoidance of ridicule is perhaps the oldest in the world, the first evildoer being the Fool.
Before morality was codified, there were folktales about the Fool, in which the Fool offends a god, overturns a beehive, or eats too much and makes the suffering in his life worse. Everyone laughs at, and tries not to be, the Fool. The painful embarrassment of being a dumbass engendered a sense of principle: "Don't be a fool" feels like a moral injunction. Thus, a classic paper on moral relativism described a (real) culture in Africa in which kindness was "foolish" and paranoia "wise." The members of this culture ostracized deviants rather than simply letting them come to a bad end, as though the friendly person were breaking a law.
Jesus overcame this implicit moral code by presenting himself as a transcendent loser. His movement disintegrated, his friends betrayed him, he was beaten, condemned, and hung in the air, naked, with a sign that says, "King." Today, his influence on history has gained him an almost universal respect, as even those who denounce Christianity or religion in general blame Christ's followers, rather than the man himself. But in his day, he was regarded as a jackass. Few could understand why anyone would follow his example: Josephus seemed a little surprised that Jesus's movement survived "to this day" (90 A.D.). Graffiti on a house in Rome which is labeled, "Alexamenos worships his God," depicts the occupant praying to a cross with a donkey's head. Christ's resurrection from the dead so impressed those who believed it that they were willing to become fools as well. This divine endorsement was so compelling that women and men overcame their fears of rejection and spoke the truth with shaking voices.
"The greatest commandment," says Jesus Christ, "is to love God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength, and to love your neighbor as yourself." This is not a precise instruction for living, but an exhortation to create something beautiful, as well as an indication of what beauty looks like. It is a drumbeat for Don Quixote saints who sacrifice their lives to kindness, ludicrous kindness, even if it doesn't help at all. It means that I have no pride to protect as I introduce myself to people and stutter, of being misunderstood for using the wrong words, and in placing myself in the hands of ruffians, who have strangest stories to tell. Once, Melanie and I invited an acquaintance to sleep in our apartment rather than drive on to Syracuse. She told us that Jesus is a lamp unto our feet, that we never see the whole picture of what we ought to do with our lives, but only the next step, step by step.
This is how living with a moral sense, even an uncertain moral
sense, is freedom: it doesn't mean living within borders, it means
composing a new variant on an old tune. Everyone follows some form of
behavior--- some repeatedly reject the impure parts of themselves,
others are always looking to balance the injustices done to them, and
still others are paralyzed by the need to esteem themselves. The
theme that God exalts is an adventurous compassion which can be
expressed in an infinitude of ways, and can drown out the limited
jingles that encroach on the back of my mind. It is a jailbreak,
not just a journey, of faith, in which the sky is darkened by the
pursuit of my former captors, but the stream that flows from the
mountains ahead is cool and inviting. The extreme form of this
freedom can be found on the martyr's block, where we discover that the
only thing that matters can't be taken away.
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