Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ category

A Tale of Two, um… Tales

June 8, 2008

There’s something dreadfully wrong with this life. The human race is capable of startling nobility, acting in accordance with what are classified as virtues of the highest level. Returning good for evil; noble self-sacrifice for the good of another; responding in gentleness and love to vehement outbursts. In short, the Christian ethic — for no other is higher, contrary to whatever the likes of Nietzsche and Rand might whine. Yet the human race is equally capable of the most disgusting, vile, hateful acts. Brutal homicide. Rapacious lust. The self-destructive flame of pride. The hideousness of Auschwitz guards. Wholesale genocide. Repetitious torture. Costly negligence. Greed like a bottomless pit. Oh, we have so much iniquity seared into our bones. And all too often, we put on a self-righteous facade and distance ourselves from that kind of nastiness. Surely we, as civilized, decent individuals, could never do such things. And by and large, we don’t, at least not at that level. But we could. It’s within us, the same infectious spore that contaminates the hearts of those who break others for their own gain, who rape, extort, torture, murder, who scheme and plot, who flaunt ill-gotten gains in the faces of the destitute, the impoverished, the disadvantaged. It’s in us. I know it’s in me. I’ve felt the eruption of this disease. A burning coldness within the innermost regions of selfhood. A grating whisper, a contorted mask, a wicked command. A blazing drive, a thirst. A thirst for sexual gratification, for violence, for power and influence, for riches, for wanton destruction. I’ve felt it. And so have you. Maybe not in quite the same ways, and maybe not always in the same degree. But you know it’s there. It’s in us all.

It’s manifestly clear that although we have our noble threads, there’s a great darkness in the human heart, and injustice shines out of that watery matrix. What can be said of this? What can be done? Who among you has not wept in the face of the agony? Who among you has not been brokenhearted at the thought of a starving Ethiopian child? Which of you hasn’t felt weak to the knees on contemplating the situation in Darfur? Or the horrors of Nazi Germany? The Reaper’s eyes glare through the mists of time, and his bony hands clutch the ends of the earth. Death. Misery. Illness. Devastation. Burdens. The excruciating spiral down into madness.

We could turn to a thorough-going materialism, of course, in face of the terror. But as we gaze deeply into that, what does it bring? We are absolutely nothing but matter arranged in a certain fashion, with certain chemical processes marking us out from other arrangements of matter. Life is, ultimately, nothing but a distinctive feature of the chemical operations being exchanged. Nothing better or worse than any other manner of processes. No objective reason that “life” should be superior to its cessation. Nothing wrong with effecting the shift from one mode of functioning to another. Nothing wrong with killing. And for that matter, consciousness is entirely reducible to a particular exchange of impulses in the brain. Same for any particular variation on that, such as pain or pleasure. Nothing ethically distinct between inducing one or the other, or between consciousness and its alternatives. What, then, is wrong with the thought of a man lifting a weeping child and thrusting a short dagger into a growing belly, letting young entrails pour out onto the cold ground? That child’s pain is simply one manner in which matter can interact. And nothing higher exists to censure it and praise the alternative “action” of, say, giving bread to a malnourished beggar. It’s all just matter, and nothing more to tell, for materialism is inevitably reductionistic. Nothing ultimately different between what transpired in Auschwitz’s gas chambers and a speech about blessedness delivered in first-century Palestine by some insignificant Jewish preacher. Matter in action. Morality, a farce. Nothing but the combination of deterministic physical interactions and the occasional indeterministic quantum fluctuation. Certainly nothing teleological lying behind either, of course. And so no space for agent causality and other assorted myths like free will, moral responsibility, justice, freedom of choice, virtue, vice, and rational thought. And no hope for anything different in the future. Just a failed collection of biological specks. As Dogbert once quipped to Dilbert, “organic pain collector[s] hurtling towards oblivion”. So why feed the hungry? Why care at all for the sick? It’s neither better nor worse than, say, desecrating your great-grandfather’s grave, or depriving the needy to get another coin in your pocket, or depleting our natural resources with wanton abandon. For what does it matter if humanity lasts even another year? It makes no cosmic significance whether a nuclear Armageddon wipes out all life on earth next week. Our survival surely isn’t some objective good. There are no objective goods; they rest on the shoulders of teleology and intentionality. No difference between life and death, between perseverance and desperate suicide. No good, no evil. Just brute fact. Unexplainable and unexplained. No reason for hope.

Yet we live on. We act as if there is some deeper purpose behind it all, as if how we conduct ourselves matters. We have mental events distinct from brain events. We construct a hierarchy of goods, imposing it upon the realm of matter and function. We condemn the deeds of Dahmer and exult in the example of Gandhi. We almost universally press on, even through our darkest hours, even when it seems that our own personal hierarchy (pain is an evil to be avoided) conflicts with that perseverance. Others, of course, select death over pain or solitude. But, by and large, we see continuation as a good that, even combined with that pain, secures a positive net entry into our little mental notation. We have hope. We behave as though minds genuinely exist, and as though moral responsibility is a true aspect of mortal life. We instinctively know that things are not as materialistic reductionism would lead us to perceive. We know better.

There is, of course, a perspective far more consonant with what we immediately perceive. There’s a world that includes mental substances and mental events, things not reducible to the merely material. Things not wholly determined by physical events. There is moral responsibility. There is objective wrong and objective right. Our reasoning faculties are not just interacting particles and chemical signals; they are also mental events that can fit together in a logically coherent whole. We can look at Auschwitz and rightly condemn; we can look at Mother Theresa and rightly praise. And this is reasonable. But there is still something horribly wrong. Something sinister at the core. For, as before, we see that extremities of good and evil reside within us. Great virtue, great vice. The former is no problem, we like that… but what of this latter, this grotesque inclination that erupts in violence and degradation?

Perhaps there is an answer. Something higher, a source for this abundant teleology. A reason why death is bad and life is good. A fundamental ground that serves as the originator of mental substances that are seemingly conjoined unexpectedly with matter. Call this what you will. But perhaps in such a postulate, if it be true, there is cause for hope.

Some think so. Some tell a sweeping saga about a love. It concerns, you see, the Teleology Provider expressing great distress over the way things have gone, and so there is invasion. The schizophrenic world received visitation like no other. An Untainted One felt our filthy touch and reached out fearlessly with spotless hands of His own. A power was promised, a power was offered. Grime of the heart, soaked in the blood of perfect life. A new people, snatched from old ways, living in the interim between two eras. A community, bound together by bloodshed offered freely. And an infinite force taking up residence among the members as though in a sanctuary. Of course, there’s still that thorny matter of the in-between, the paradox. But in that, there’s a promise. Now is partial; then shall be full. A new age, the new age. Perfection comes. Justice done, death undone. A banquet for the hungry, flowing water for the thirsty. Wealth for the destitute, new robes for the naked. Wholeness for the broken. Tears a moist memory. Violence gone; no more violation, no more shame. The new people, the temple people, the community, blessed for a new age. Healing. Hope for the helpless, rest for the weary, love for a broken heart. Mercy and grace, might and pardon. All because of an invasion, ferried in by the Untainted One who took stains from the stained.

That’s at least how the narrative goes. So many stories. Some hopeful, some fearful. I’ve told two. One wretched to the core, painted with blood at its very foundation. Not even reason survives its touch. Nearly every basic belief is called into question or outright denied, though most back away from its darker, deeper corridors. Another also has blood at its foundation. But not mine, and not yours. God’s. It offers hope and encourages truth, reason, and virtue. It displays standards by which to truly evaluate acts.

I know which story solves a very real problem, and which story reduces the problem into insignificant brute reality at the expense of every value anyone has ever held. I know which story tells me that I should be dismayed at evil and overjoyed at good. I know which story tells me to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, tend to the wounded, and comfort the hurting. I know which story enables and unlocks true humanity, if only we’ll be saturated by the epic. I know which story speaks of change, and which one speaks of dreadful stasis.

Which story do you tell?