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P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
16.3 (Summer 2016)
Faith vs. Cultural Meltdown
Pensées (or Stray Thoughts on the Contorted Human Psyche)
John R. Harris
The contorted devices and desires of the human being’s psyche can hide surprises virtually everywhere, including behind the most objective manner of science and within seemingly the most generous motives.
The Absurdity of Senselessness
It’s worthwhile to think a little about the hubris of claiming that all in the universe is running down. The sun is going to explode; our descendants will need to find another solar system. The galaxy itself would not have preserved the sublime swirls that compose its cartwheel if it did not contain hidden mass—and this “dark matter” must eventually pull every star and planet of the Milky Way into an inconceivably dense black hole. If the very distant descendants of humans managed to hop along to another, less senile galaxy, that one, too, would be an hour glass whose sand must some day run out, sucked into an insatiable vortex. As the universe’s innumerable galaxies, each cannibalizing itself, all draw farther apart and cool down, the inevitable end is utter silence, perfect stillness, and absolute zero. Futility awaits us even at the far side of the newest wormhole.
This vein of sepulchral poetry clothed in theoretical physics seems to me guilty of a major oversight: the whopping statistical improbability of our living here and now to construct and savor such despair. If the inexorable terminus of the entropy yawns for us like a magnetic grave, then the night following the dissolution of every human—and of every worm ever to gnaw a corpse—must be infinite. If “forever” could have any sense in a setting where nothing happens and nothing moves, then the final gasp of the cosmos should have been exhaled immeasurably long ago—a veritable forever in the past. The chances of our being alive at just this instant of an instant of a micro-instant to ponder the meaninglessness of being are not quite one in ten quadrillion googles. Yet here we sit, brooding about a pointless Creation.
Some say that the cosmos will not run off in every direction until it vanishes, like the torrents of an annual cloudburst in a saline desert. They say that enough dark matter exists to collapse the strained cosmic rubber band in a great gravitational snap of reverse-acceleration. This would get us out of our statistical non-sequitur. We would be here right now because countless previous versions of us had been approximately here in previous “nows”. The absurdity of the solution so clearly surpasses that of the one-way road to thermodynamic Freeze, however, that a stickler for logic would prefer the former—for there, at least, inconsistency can obscure itself in infinity. The ever-oscillating universe begs a question that even a child would ask: how did the oscillation start? What hand first set the pendulum swinging that afterward swings for eternity by itself?
Nothing we can say on this subject makes any real sense. Yet we live in a time when rejecting such senselessness is treated as the height of dull-witted perversity. Why is that? Why are our guiding intellectual lights so determined to have their darkness?
The Advantages of Doomsaying
For some reason, we give far less thought to how the contorted human psyche might selfishly benefit from a certain worldview than we do to the objective validity of that view. Objectivity offers no guarantee against personal advantage. Just as a profiteering industrialist makes millions off of arming his nation for a war that truly needs to be fought on behalf of innocent lives, so the most punctiliously objective cosmologist to be found remains a human being, and hence may be temperamentally well served by mapping out coolly a cosmic train ride to nullity.
One immediate and obvious benefit is the prestige of being the scientific community’s premier autopsist—the grand shaman of invisible forces who, though certain that we must all end in cold, still dust, will enjoy abundant press and applause in his two-score years of aging celebrity. Faustus was given twenty-four; and, as legend has it, he made the most of them.
Quite apart from drawing the admiration of others, the empirical prophet of doom may also succeed in stilling certain unsettled voices within. (Faustus did not so succeed, ultimately; but the attempt is usually dramatized as one of his major motives.) Agnosticism can be maddening. One wants to live what very little time one has to the hilt… but how to measure the hilt’s height if one can’t be sure that the time we know is all there is? Women, wealth, power, revelry… if only one could assure oneself, beyond the grim ghost of a doubt, that exploiting others for selfish enjoyment incurred no later cost, but was as much a man’s natural destiny as chewing a cud is a cow’s… if only. Then one might surrender to the moment’s thrills without looking back.
There is a more refined version of the same pleasure, too. It consists not of indulging carnal appetites without remorse, but of being at peace with despair—of knowing to a statistical certainty (statistics are a witness that can always be summoned by either side) that we must all come to nothing. The terror goes away after a while, as one builds a career upon establishing cosmic futility; or if it never goes away completely for good, it becomes manageable, like the pain of a progressive cancer treated with drugs and rest.
Finally, there is the joy (and let no one doubt that this is a real joy, when only despair remains) of being avenged on God; of proving to various and sundry that Creation is an intricate suicide, a miraculously articulated engine that spends eons fitting and tightening a noose around its neck; that if it were indeed to be conceived as the work of a Creator, He would have to be an idiot-savant of such stupefying ineptitude that any one of His minutely evolved dodo birds or jackasses would have more sense.
Of course, to spit in God’s face and claim such revenge, one first must suppose that He exists. Proving that He doesn’t exist as a way of getting back at Him for not existing more comprehensibly seems, in itself, pretty incomprehensible. But an angry child doesn’t concern himself about making sense: he just kicks and shouts names.
The Enigma of the Fig
The Sermon on the Mount is recorded most amply and eloquently in Matthew and Luke. The critical points are virtually the same; but the order, as should not surprise anyone who has ever tried to transcribe spoken words months or years after their delivery, is a source of disagreement. Coming upon Luke 6 all of a sudden forces a quick peek back to Matthew 7. There, “Judge not lest ye be judged,” and then the exhortation to clear one’s own eye of a beam before addressing the splinter in the eye of one’s neighbor, do not transit immediately into knowing the wicked tree by its fruit. Luke’s version seems surely misremembered. Why would the Teacher, right after condemning superficial judgments of others, warn his audience against wicked deceivers—and do so by bidding them heed outward signs?
Even for a transcript of words heard long ago, the text appears to beg for a good proofread and a judicious edit. Someone should have noticed the weak transition creating apparent inconsistency.
But what if there were no true inconsistency? What if Luke’s challenge to look past apparent inconsistency in the Sermon itself were intended by the Speaker? What if Luke’s memory were better than Matthew’s; or what if Matthew had mistrusted his memory precisely because the logic of rhetorical effect won him away from his first recollection?
Yet how can an eye that fails to assess its neighbor’s myopia correctly because its own blindness is almost absolute take one look at a plant and know it for a weed?
If the faithful were capable of understanding this paradox, then perhaps Christendom would not be teetering on collapse. Instead, we find that the virtue of tolerance—of fearing one’s own susceptibility to prejudice—has grown until believers now stand dazed before horrors up to and including the mass murder of innocents, struggling to comprehend the murderer’s motives and shrinking from the temptation to decry the act as bad.
A wicked deed is a wicked deed. The murder of children has no excuse. Even far lesser crimes should be equally unmistakable.
Take these, for instance. A judicial verdict delivered in favor of a corrupt official on the promise of a later promotion is the second coming of Judas’s kiss. An obscure law perverted so as to chase poor widows from their houses and leave space for creating a lucrative shopping mall or golf course contradicts such laws as have never needed writing among men of conscience. A workplace evaluation doctored to disparage an employee’s credentials so that, disheartened, he vacates his position just as the senator’s son applies for it is a dark stain—a fuming lie—upon the soul of truth. The prescription of some dubious drug whose manufacturer offers special perks—or whose peddling agent is a beautiful blonde eager to show gratitude for any advancement of her career—is a kind of invisible, minutely incremental murder.
Such acts leave traces. When promotions are many and substantial without evident cause, open eyes can see. When a man’s first words are of how much profit he stands to make and objections of foul play only concern him if they reach the public, any ear can detect his shifting tone. When an administrator entrusted with making appointments is surrounded by subordinates with powerful connections, what mind is too dull to wonder? When a highly trained custodian of public health has more young women on his arm than technical journals on his table, what adult will not question where his major interest rests?
Where vultures circle, there—somewhere just below—lies a corpse.
The sense of something’s being amiss should be spontaneous, like perceiving a stench in the wind. Different degrees of indignation, naturally, may follow—and mere suspicion is not equivalent to catching a malefactor red-handed. Yet a morally alive person should know suspicion. A woman who slips from the boss’s office sobbing and clutching a torn blouse to her chest isn’t a sight that one forgets because bosses are bosses—and certainly not because one can imagine doing the same thing in the boss’s place.
Not only does tolerance not require that we thrust ourselves into a villain’s shoes; it requires that we keep our feet well away from such shoes. Having enough self-awareness to recognize a hypocritical disapproval of others in one’s heart is the flip side of having enough moral transcendence—enough abstract principle—to recognize wrong for wrong. If an inner voice does not instantly, naturally denounce the kinds of misdeed represented here, then how will it denounce us for overlooking similar misdeeds in our own lives?
If we judge not, then we will rule that outrages just witnessed never happened and that lies just told never butchered the truth. If we cannot distinguish between judgments made in essential fairness and charity and those made in egotistical disdain and envious dismissal—if we cannot distinguish between righeousness and self-righteousness—then we will carry about such lumber in our eye that we will not know night from day.
There are judgments wherein the mind tricks itself, spinning a yarn that turns its selfish motives into high principle; and then there are (or should be) judgments as immediate to thought as the savor of fruit is to the tongue, since they precede all syllogistic thought and give moral reflection a solid base. We know the tree by its fruit. To apologize for the lemon and argue for its being sweeter than a fig is no exercise of tolerance, but a perversion of judgment that potentially turns exploitation into wholesome economic activity, graft into clemency, fraud into prankishness, and lustful conquest into a winged Cupid.
It also (this deformed magnanimity) can turn the sin of lazy, conniving, cowardly inaction into the virtue of tolerance. The Western world, and particularly what remains of Western Chistendom, has been so eroded by the false humility of self-deprecation that the circling vultures are quickly descending upon its carcass. Worst of all, perhaps, is the supreme arrogance of those who practice such betrayal of every principle they claim to hold dear and of every true victim of moral outrage who implores their help. Lacking even enough decency to be ashamed of advertising their pusillanimity, they instead boast of it when they celebrate a paralytic “broad-mindedness”.
Ye know the tree by its fruit. Judge ye not that figs grow on thistles.
Dr. John Harris founded The Center for Literate Values and serves as its current president. He is Senior Lecturer in English at the University of Texas at Tyler.