Wednesday, October 20, 2010

How I Consider Religion

Atheos Ego

I was going to use the numerology in Medieval architecture as a sort of lead-in to this subject, but it became a long paragraph, a separate post in Opera Nobilia, q.v.

It is no wonder that others ask someone like me who obviously is not devout now but who has been a nun for eight years of her life why she really likes St. Paul and really likes Christopher Hitchens.  I thought I’d better write something to follow up that old essay, now nearly fifteen years old, that hinged on Paul and on Brahms’ setting of I Corinthians 13.  That was originally written with awareness that devout friends might read it, whose feelings should not be hurt.
Long ago, when I was young and had sloughed my childhood religious instruction, as a mid-century student I knew almost no one who was a believer.  Berkeley had, and has, plenty of assorted churches, but I knew almost no one who attended them.  Over mulled wine or the like we would sit around and discuss, though, whether it was better to be ‘agnostic’ or ‘atheistic’.  It was then that I began to realize that knowing some Greek made all the difference to me.  Agnostic is a philosophical position, acknowledging that, unless you wanted to be a Gnostic or a Cathar, knowing is intrinsically impossible; I thought, and still ask, what is the pistis that Paul talks about in the letter to the Romans if it is not trust, by grace, as distinct from something that can be proven, either by experience or in a syllogism?  To be atheos, however, is a theological position, being the belief that there is no god.  Nous, you say?  Yet one did sense, as with mind being different from brain, but brain being its precondition, that nous, even to a Stoic, needed to be the nous of a Being, but ‘being’ is the most abstract of abstract nouns, so not much help.  Now over our mulled wine some would insist that they really were atheists, and others might feel that they protested too much and might be insecure about it; some would insist that agnosticism was the only thing to profess, as more philosophically respectable, and others might feel that they were being stuffy, or prigs, or unwilling to decide.  Need I say that one learned simply to be polite, because not everybody has a taste for considering Ultimate Questions philologically.  Eventually it became obvious to me that, if one is to use words, when words have been forged in daily use and worked hard by those who argue and have axes to grind, the words do have to be chosen quite strictly, and historically as well.  The other day I was reading a quote from Macrobius: if I’m going to read Macrobius and try to see what he was getting at, I must work my way back to his mentality.  I needn’t agree with him, but I can’t decide whether I agree or not, in part or in whole, unless I can get at his mind.
It is no wonder, then, that I like Christopher Hitchens.  He is perfectly atheos and perfectly nice about it; in fact, he is an adorable person, even if he does drink more than I’d dare to do.  He understands that the use of religion to justify and even motivate most of the ghastliest sins (sins being wickedness perpetrated out of terrible neuroses—yes, I like Lionel Trilling, too, and large patches of Freud, but I don’t mind not agreeing with everything they think) doesn’t really have much to do with reverence, and reverence is not dependent on belief in gods.  He is like Lucretius.
Last weekend Sam Harris was on TV with his new book.  He is younger, he has a way to go, he might become subtler and more profound, but he isn’t yet.  He has a humanistic ideal, but Hitchens has a far better humanistic education, far better digested.  Harris still campaigns.  He doesn’t understand much about the Greek gods; Homer is not a Bible like that of the religions of the Book.
In the 1950s we thought that almost everybody knew the difference between scientific theories and working hypotheses and harebrained fantasies or wishful thinking.  A universe of time-space with more dimensions than our senses are evolved to realize directly was a wonderful possibility to solve the greatest puzzlements: Elizabeth Ann said to her Nan, How and ever did God began?—that and all the rest.  The inner workings of atoms, not that you expected to see them, was similarly comforting.  Who ever expected the moon, once landed on, to be other than it is: not at all loony?  Those who were theistic thought of Michelangelo’s God the Father as a wonderful expression, or realization, of humanity’s feelings about itself, in our culture.  We atheoi accept it as happily as we do the Greek myths, or some of the other myths, Asian or Native American, for example.  But I never have known a believer, in the convent in particular, who thought of a God so anthropomorphic (so Greek!) as Michelangelo’s.  It would be in Dante and in some visionary saints that we would seek an adumbration of seeing god.  A mythos is not a falsehood; it is an account, something one can tell, and, in Latin, so is a fabula.  All such things are the jewel box of our imaginative existence.
What we need to free ourselves from, and it is difficult in a world of spinning and manipulating, prostituting language, is cliché.  For example, faith (trust) is not always blind, but it is the proper attitude to the truth, that the human brain that can learn and imagine and theorize so much can never know even itself perfectly, which is no reason why neuroscience should give up its proper endeavors.  What we really need to slough is needy craving for proofs and certainties, to free ourselves to learn and understand what is to our good, what is really wonderful, whether it is great art or great astronomy (the Hubble and its successors!) or, just look here, great telecommunications.  How blessed I am to live in the age of quarks and googles.
Perhaps that is enough for now.
If anyone’s interested, perhaps I’ll share some more of it later.