The Center for Literate Values ~ Defending the Western tradition of responsible individualism, disciplined freedom, tasteful creativity, common sense, and faith in a supreme moral being.
P R A E S I D I U M
A Common-Sense Journal of Literary and Cultural Analysis
16.4 (Fall 2016)
Faith vs. Cultural Meltdown
Pensées (Thoughts on Pseudo-Science and Neo-Heathenry)
John R. Harris
The self-styled “realism” of the educated atheist often rests upon the myths of pseudo-science; in fact, our progressive beliefs bear more than a passing resemblance to the tribal superstition of yesteryear.
Embracing the Void: Pseudo-Science Meets False Courage
I had never attended an open-casket funeral before this summer; and, in the occasion’s very traditional setting, I attempted to fade into the wallpaper so that my abstinence from viewing the cadavre would not stir notice. I have seen death before. What disturbs me is not the sight of a body, but rather the assumption that the sight will somehow write the departed one’s final chapter in the minds of the living. A corpse is an empty shell. To view it is not to assure yourself that the person you have lost rests in peace: it is to fill your eyes with the image of a shell.
But I understand that, for some people, soul and body do not neatly separate during the period of mourning just because they have in fact functionally separated. Matter holds us prisoner. The body is a tool in the spirit’s hand—but it is also a tar pit from which the spirit struggles to rise. Some may consider this attachment to matter a characteristic of the “primitive mentality” (as when we find prehistoric peoples buried with food and drink, articles of wealth, a favorite dog, and so forth). That may be. The ironic truth, however, is that modern science has also tended to make thorough materialists of us all. If we do not bury a chief with his wives any longer (and the British were able to eradicate this practice—called sati—from India only about a century and a half ago), it isn’t because we are wholly persuaded that the chief’s soul abides no more within his body, but because we’re convinced that neither the chief nor anyone else has ever had any such thing as a soul. The more progressive funerals that I’ve lately come to know all too well commemorate the departed in a sequence of eulogies delivered by family and friends. The lost loved one is now nothing but a memory, and lives on only in that capacity. As long as we keep the memory alive, some fragment of the person survives; and when we, too, die and are forgotten, those whom we remembered will also be forgotten… and the fallen leaves will decay, their dust will create compost in the soil, and a new tree will nourish its roots upon the litter.
In that sepulchral vision, one finds little room for human nobility: as garden fodder, we have no more claim to a purposeful existence than do the weeds that graze upon us. Indeed, the preachers of “Green” who would happily see the human race thinned out or exterminated that other species might prosper are consistent in their loathing of mankind, for their system truly allots a niche to us no different from that of the invasive plant that strangles its native competitors. Humans are a kind of bipedal kudzu. They crawl all over Nature’s diversity and starve it of sunlight as they gluttonously feed their own short-sighted appetites.
While the black misanthropy of Green is not devoid of justification, it fails to provide moral guidance to people who cannot be sold on the virtues of suicide; and, for that matter, we have no reason to suppose that a weed, a tree, or any other natural life form has ever willed its own destruction for the sake of other species. We are left, then, with a noble impulse lacking any coherent basis for its nobility: the good man wants to die because men are evil! To that extent, the ancient pagan had a leg up on us. He saw the body as traveling (food in pouch and favorite dog at heel) into the next world; our stuffy, self-serving eulogies (self-serving because they make a “temporary eternity” out of our own memories) consign corpses to become lawn fertilizer. Which of the two alternatives more strongly implies that human life has special purpose?
Admittedly, a person reared upon an intellectual diet of molecules, mitochondria, and mutation cannot take seriously the notion of every graveyard giving up its corpses on Judgment Day that they may dance in the sky. “Dem bones gonna walk around” makes great music for foot-stomping and hand-clapping… but the decomposition cycle all too visible (and otherwise perceptible) in unburied wildlife would have left even a thoughtful farmboy of yesteryear skeptical of the process. How does it all fit back together? What age does the newly arisen believer have: age at the time of death, or age in the blossom of youth? If he were blind in life, does he now see? If he had false teeth toward the end, does he recover his originals? Does he wear clothes? Does he eat, drink, sweat, and urinate?
And what does he actually do, now that he has been resurrected in the “end of time”? For if time has ended, then neither he nor anyone else can do anything, by definition. He must be frozen, instantly and forever, right after recovering his body in some upgraded form. What sort of bliss is that? Or if he dances and sings heaven’s praises, then time cannot in fact have ended, for events are still occurring. Does the dancing and praising go on forever? Is that really a more attractive prospect than spending eternity in cryogenic preservation?
What is commonly lost in the patent absurdities surrounding all naive images of the Resurrection is the empiricist’s own capture in the same trap. For what is the “scientific” alternative? The triumph of entropy: a universe that spreads out and cools down until it can spread and cool no more. Absolute stasis at absolute zero forever more, dissolving every city and temple and aircraft and great ship, every poem and novel and portrait and symphony—every volcanic eruption and 9.5 earthquake and meteor shower and extermination event—into permanent oblivion. Nothing to the nth degree: night without stars or possibility of dawn.
Vistas of such bleakness tend to impress the devotees of science precisely because they intimidate. Something which is frightful to believe yet nonetheless embraced enjoys an aura of credibility simply because the believer has every self-indulgent reason to reject it. To stare into the abyss takes courage. Science-worshipers have such courage: religious people, on the other hand (so the case goes), choose to kid themselves.
Yet this heroic pose, too, reeks of self-indulgence—for who does not want to be known as courageous? The pose’s justification indeed turns out to be more egotistical than logical, for absolute stasis at absolute zero is in fact a conception full of contradictory content. Do not atomic particles continue to move at absolute zero? If so, then micro-events continue to occur in the universe—on an incalculable scale—and time does not stop. In a “metachronic” universe sitting at absolute stasis, mustn’t every particle of matter be so distant from every other that the force of gravity is completely nullified? The least little twinge of attraction would again qualify as an event. The forces binding atoms into molecules would also not only have to be released from one cosmic boundary to the other, but permanently released; there would have to be no possibility of such bonding in the future (or in the dead time that would replace what we call the future). Does enough energy exist in the universe, scientifically speaking, to separate all molecules everywhere and forever? Do not we reason that molecules exist, in the first place, because the energy to keep their atoms separate cannot be found; that is, does the stability of more complex matter not reflect a conservation of energy, in our way of explaining things, rather than an expenditure of energy?
And what, then, is more sensible about the chilling vision of a great and permanent midnight than about the giddy vision of “dem dry bones” walking around?
A final thought for now, on a subject whose solicitation of thoughts might itself continue forever: can absolute stillness be spoken of as a possibility when a perceiver of absolute stillness is an impossibility—this being so, not because no life form can exist in absolute zero (or not primarily so for that reason), but because the perception itself would be null? How do you perceive an utter, absolute “eventlessness”? For all we know, every second of our time right now may be followed by a universally shared “second” of timelessness, when all is frozen before every eye in the cosmos. The second of oblivion might as well be an hour—or a century—since nothing whatever would happen during its lapse, and there would hence be no reference point against which to measure it. And since the “oblivious lapse” would be as inconceivable as it is imperceptible, how can we affirm that a grand new sequence of activity would not burst out of entropy’s end-of-the-line lockdown? For a state which defies rational comprehension may behave in any fashion that fancy chooses to impose upon a trip through the looking-glass.
We do not know what form our souls may take in another—a fuller—reality. We cannot know. And so the pseudo-scientific posture that our personhood reduces to nothing more than so much manure for the tomato plants is the bravado of exhibitionists who want others to think highly of them… or who want to think highly of themselves. Only a human being could enhance his self-estimate by insisting that he is a mere pile of scat!
Heaven on Earth: The Resurgence of Heathenry
There are essentially two religious views of human life. (It would be arch to say, “The right one and the wrong one.” Let us remain diplomatic for the moment.) One view holds that the mortal world exists to challenge individual human souls and refine them into a more perfect condition. The other holds that individual human souls exist to collaborate in forming a more perfect world.
It is sensible to assume that peoples living in a tribal state, with little technology or scientific understanding and hence a heavy dependency upon each other as a maelstrom of fearful mystery swirls around the communal raft, would discount individualism. The preeminent concern would be physical survival from day to day. Predators would prowl. Snakes would bite. Lightning would bolt, often creating fires that would devour. If a plan for a more defensible village were found to work, and if it required utter cooperation from each of the tribe’s members, then incidental infractions of personal rights would be dismissed as insignificant. In such a setting, we may fairly say that the notion of individual rights would not even have evolved. “Heaven on earth” is a village that stays intact for three years running. No individual can lay claim to any rights if every individual is apt to starve or freeze before winter ends.
Hence religions reflecting tribal preoccupations redound with prescriptive laws governing very specific behaviors. Correctly or not (for recall that the circumstances are pre-scientific, often grossly superstitious), these behaviors were perceived by the original lawgivers as enhancing the chances of physical survival. Don’t eat pork, or eat it only when cooked to a crisp. Wash before eating, and eat only with washed digits. Don’t pilfer each other’s womenfolk—and abstain from your woman during her monthly bleed. A man who abides by such laws is a good man. He fulfills the letter of the law, in a strictly behaviorist sense. No one cares what unseen motives may stir in him; or, to be less anachronistic once again, no one has really begun to ponder the unseen which separates individual from communal life. The tribesman himself is a stranger to introspection: his ignorance of what we would call hypocrisy confers upon him a perversely child-like quality much remarked by anthropologists. When Achilles begrudges Agamemnon the theft of a girl whom he himself stole after slaying her family, his rage is justified in cultural context. He knows shame, but not guilt. Losing face before the tribe leaves him ready to kill—or to die—in grief and outrage (cf. Ajax); but acts of rape and murder committed against other tribes have not cost him a moment’s sleep. They have, indeed, ennobled him before his peers. Whatever promotes his own tribal group deserves honor.
With technology comes safety from daily terrors. With such safety comes the leisure to reflect upon the purpose of life. With such reflection comes the awareness that others may themselves be thus reflecting in fertile silence. With that awareness comes an extension of one’s newly discovered inner resources to the rest of the tribe, and even to the human race. From that generous extension arises common humanity. Not everybody who is nurtured in these more sophisticated circumstances is a generous or humane person, of course. Now, however, the inconsiderate invader of others’ boundaries cannot be excused, like Achilles, for a child-like naiveté belonging to his culture. Such a person is an arrogant egotist. He is responsible for the retarded state of his soul: he should know better.
The religion of this latter setting compels the individual to examine why he acts as well as how he acts. Merely conforming to a prescribed program of action no longer qualifies him as good. In fact, if his life beams with community service yet he has offered his sacrifices at the altars of public display and self-promotion, his behavior is not even morally neutral: it is rank with true hypocrisy. The state of his soul ultimately determines whether or not his time on earth has been profitably spent—and ostentatious spectacles of generosity cannot verify the state of his soul.
The teaching of Jesus often concurs wonderfully with this view of human morality as evolving in response to a deep cultural dichotomy (e.g., “To whom much has been given, much is expected”). From the Old Man to the New Man; from birth in the flesh to rebirth from above; from the law to the spirit of the law. Rather than simply hearing the law, people around the Mediterranean are starting to read it, and even to write about it: they’re beginning to think. A conceptual transition seems to be everywhere implicit in the Gospels. The correlation is so fine that the point where it breaks down can produce quite a shock… yet break down, it does. We do not, unhappily, keep evolving morally just because history turns another page.
The Christian imperative, after all, is no mere call to be less brutal and more “sensitive”. Sometimes, indeed, a person who is spiritual in the profounder sense must be less sensitive, in that he must suppress or “bully” what seems an adequate excuse for laxity, refusing on principle to “lighten up”. A truly conscientious person, for instance, does not forgive self-indulgent rage (as opposed to righteous indignation) either in himself or in his son. He forces himself to learn control, and he forces his son to do the same. Agamemnon evokes the strange goddess Âte (Blindness to Consequences) in justifying his loss of temper during the fight with Achilles: the Devil made him do it. The profoundly spiritual person doesn’t have recourse to any such goddess. He takes responsibility rather than blame his upbringing or temperament.
This is a hard road… and, for the more than half-century that I have been alive, we have stopped walking it. What might well be styled a “cult of sensitivity” has come to be a distinguishing characteristic of postmodern society. We do not acknowledge a duty to improve ourselves any longer: our duty is to the collective, that it may mold the average “me” to be less average (absurdity intended). No observer of current affairs in the advanced Western nations can deny that our dominant ethos promotes the steady perfection of this mortal world, not an individual preparation for a more spiritual and durable one. The god Progress has called us forth from our quiet self-scrutiny and made of us various new tribes of joiners, supporters, crusaders, and “change-agents”.
There is a hidden but ironclad logic underlying this paradox. Technology has liberated us so successfully from fear of tigers, lightning, floods, droughts, and contagions that we have come to believe it capable of solving any problem whatever. It will eradicate poverty and hunger one day soon. It will banish disease from us until we remain scarcely mortal. It will even take us to a new solar system in time to escape our Sun’s cataclysmic death-stage—or else fashion a new system for us precisely to our specifications.
The only real obstacle we recognize to our making a heaven of earth is the reluctance of certain individuals to climb on board. We call them “haters”, “deniers”, “solipsists”, “sociopaths”, and other inanely concocted epithets (must one never hate or deny anything, then?) and grotesquely abused terms poached from academic preserves. We charge them with wearing their tribal feathers upside-down or not dancing in the festival. We apparently could not care less about the motives behind their hesitation. To hesitate is already a crime… and to pledge allegiance under threat of ostracism, prison, or execution suffices to forgive all (as long as no signs of relapse appear). On the surging prow of our miraculously high-tech ship, we have fixed the figurehead of some nightmarish Egyptian hybrid-god (or, in Yeats’s phrase, “a shape with lion body and the head of a man”)—and all must bow down in an irrational orgy of devotion.
Most distressing is the number of professed Christian priests and ministers who adore this new (and very ancient) god. They explain that Jesus would have wanted to see the poor clothed and fed, the persecuted folded in an embrace of universal tolerance, and the belligerent and murderous unopposed by any force stronger than “understanding”. Of the afterlife, they say not a word, and to it they spare not a thought. Their Christ is Renan’s “very good man” who showed us how to collaborate in the world’s perfection, even at the cost of our lives. To be sure, the sacrifice of one’s life to a cause always stirs a certain amount of admiration; but if any age should be aware that unworthy causes can inspire this ultimate sacrifice—and inspire it with strong doses of ecstasy—is not ours that age?
It is heathenry (as well as willful stupidity) to suppose that this world of mortal matter can ever be purged of the temporary and of the corruptive. Beyond that, it is definitively immoral to collaborate in a system that denies individual beings the freedom to seek a purer expression of their considered motives in an alternative and eccentric act whose only harm is to compromise “unanimity”. We do not have the proper cultural pedigree to be dancing around this unwholesome campfire. We are not Achilles. To us was much given… and we have returned not even what was expected from the lowliest tribesman.
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.