religion

Thomas Merton On The Fear Of Suffering


“Indeed, the truth that many people never understand, until it is too late, is that the more you try to avoid suffering, the more you suffer, because the smaller and more insignificant things begin to torture you, in proportion to your fear of being hurt. The one who does most to avoid suffering is, in the end, the one who suffers most: and his suffering comes to him from things so little and so trivial that one can say that it is no longer objective at all. It is his own existence, his own being, that is at once the subject and the source of his pain, and his very existence and consciousness is his greatest torture. This is another of the great perversions by which the devil uses our philosophies to turn our whole nature inside out, and eviscerate all our capacities for good, turning them against ourselves.”

– Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain

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I recently began reading Merton after years of knowing him by name only, and his work has not yet disappointed me. His life is an incredible account from the start, traveling with artist parents all over Western Europe and the U.S. by the age of 16. Although he was not raised religiously, his background was more Protestant and his views toward Catholicism were suspicious at best in his formative years. Over a decade later, he reflects on his pain through the slow tragedy of his father’s death from his position as a Trappist monk, and comes to the conclusion above.

I find not only that these statements ring true, but that they ring especially true in an age where so many have been taught to fear suffering. It is strange to see that as science and technologies advance, cultures seem to increasingly cling to them as a source of removal of suffering. We approaching medicine with a sort of mystical attitude, collectively treating the medical industry with the awe and respect that a tribal people would give to a witch doctor. This atmoaphere of fear and being constantly aware of the unknown leaves us a people crying “foul!” of any tragedy that befalls us personally.

I find Merton’s last spiritual statement here, as in many other places throughout his writing, to feel slightly non sequitur to someone outside his perspective. As someone raised surrounded by Catholicism without knowing much of a Catholic perspective, his deep philosophical thoughts are refreshing and require more contemplation on my part.

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Further Reading

Lewis, Tolkien, and The Land

Masanobu Fukuoka On A Philosophy Of Science

J.R.R. Tolkien Explains Creativity And Death

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How To Get Rid Of Faith


“What those ancient Greeks (who also had some understanding of philosophy) regarded as a task for a whole lifetime, seeing that dexterity in doubting is not acquired in a few days or weeks, what the veteran combatant attained when he had preserved the equilibrium of doubt through all the pitfalls he encountered, who intrepidly denied the certainty of sense-perception and the certainty of the processes of thought, incorrigibly defied the apprehensions of self-love and the insinuations of sympathy–that is where everybody begins in our time.

In our time nobody is content to stop with faith but wants to go further. It would perhaps be rash to ask where these people are going, but it is surely a sign of breeding and culture for me to assume that everybody has faith, for otherwise it would be queer for them to be. . .going further. In those old days it was different, then faith was a task for a whole lifetime, because it was assumed that dexterity in faith is not acquired in a few days of weeks. When the tried oldster drew near to his last hour, having fought the good fight and kept the faith, his heart was still young enough not to have forgotten that fear and trembling which chastened the youth, which the man indeed held in check, but which no man quite outgrows. . .except as he might succeed at the earliest opportunity in going further. Where these revered figures arrived, that is the point where everybody in our day begins to go further.

The present writer is nothing of a philosopher, he has not understood the System, does not know whether it actually exists, whether it is completed; already he has enough for his weak head in the thought of what a prodigious head everybody in our day must have, since everybody has such a prodigious thought. Even though one were capable of converting the whole content of faith into the form of a concept, it does not follow that one has adequately conceived faith and understands how one got into it, or how it got into one.”

– Soren Kierkegaard (under the pseudonym Johannes De Silentio), excerpt from the Preface of Fear And Trembling.
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This sarcastic little preface starts one of the key works of existentialism, a book that champions faith. It turns out that Kierkegaard is, contrary to his claims, capable of presenting very dense philosophical concepts. His goal in this preface seems to be to validate self-doubt in a culture of self-presumption and faith in a culture that assumes it can discover all that there is to know. Doubt and faith exist as check and balance that should last a lifetime, keeping us honest about the nature of the things we believe and helping us to more deeply trust what we have recognized as reliable truth.

The interesting point here is that “our day” for Kierkegaard was the early 1840’s. It is sometimes hard to remember that the troubled ideas of a modern age brimming with scientific discovery are not new. Just because we are only recently making rampant “discoveries for discovery’s sake” does not mean we are the first or second or fifth generation to assume we can get somewhere based on discoveries alone. Humanity has eternally presumed and desired a mysterious completion of (or in) discovery rather than faith in anything. But isn’t that a form of faith in scientific discovery?

Kierkegaard is humble enough to assume that he will never be able to Systematize existence. Just as he calls our implicit faith in sensory-perception and process-of-thought into question, he questions whether faith itself, even if we claim to understand what it entails, can be pulled out and set aside from ration.

When I read this piece I immediately think about how ready we are to hurl a slew of random statistics and scientific studies at problematic points to prove our emotionally-based opinions. There are studies and statistics available to validate nearly every opposing viewpoint available to choose from today; so much so that, though we haven’t created self-presumption and human omnipotence, our generation has nearly perfected the use of them.

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Related reads

The Tragedy Of Having A Baby

What Christians Can Learn From Athiests

Wanna Change The World? Shake Someone’s Hand!

Author Quotes: Science, Religion, and Vonnegut’s Disrespect


PROTEIN
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“He was supposed to be our commencement speaker,” said Sandra.

“Who was?” I asked.

“Dr. Hoenikker – the old man.”

“What did he say?”

“He didn’t show up.”

“So you didn’t get a commencement address?”

“Oh, we got one. Dr. Breed, the one you’re gonna see tomorrow, he showed up, all out of breath, and he gave some kind of talk.”

“What did he say?”

“He said he hoped a lot of us would have careers in science,” she said. She didn’t see anything funny in that. She was remembering a lesson that had impressed her. She was repeating it gropingly, dutifully.

“He said, the trouble with the world was …”
She had to stop and think.

“The trouble with the world was,” she continued hesitatingly,

“that people were still superstitious instead of scientific. He said if everybody would study science more, there wouldn’t be all the trouble there was.”
“He said science was going to discover the basic secret of life someday,” the bartender put in. He scratched his head and frowned.

“Didn’t I read in the paper the other day where they’d finally found out what it was?”

“I missed that,” I murmured.

“I saw that,” said Sandra.

“About two days ago.”

“That’s right,” said the bartender.

“What is the secret of life?” I asked.

“I forget,” said Sandra.

“Protein,” the bartender declared.

“They found out something about protein.”

“Yeah,” said Sandra,

“that’s it.”

 

– Kurt Vonnegut, chapter 11 of Cat’s Cradle, titled “Protein.”

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I recently reviewed Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five on the blog, and everyone shouted loudly that I must read Cat’s Cradle, which I am happily diverting from my 55 List to indulge. As I mentioned before, Vonnegut gets us comfortable, speaks to us disarmingly and then makes a silly character of all of our presumptions and standards. He says, “look, I can show you the epitome of our social normalcy, and I can damn everything about these religions and this science and this culture. It’s all rotten.”

That’s what I like about this tiny chapter. It makes a perfectly poignant, stand-alone social commentary on how easily we can assume that science can replace religion, which can replace engagement. Apparently if we understand the “how”, we need not understand the “why”.

Religion is, by definition, systematization and lifestyle adherence to a standardized philosophy. It often gives us answers which have been pre-reasoned for us. We are asked to simply concede their apparent truth. Science often attempts to walk a similar line, replacing the “here’s why” with a “here’s how.” Just because something is presented to us systematically does not invalidate it, but there is always paradox and apparent holes.

Vonnegut’s constant hostility toward these forms seems to come almost solely from his perspective on their complete lack of moral sustenance. Surviving WWII, his confidence in the integrity of most social institutions was utterly destroyed. He is able to look at Christianity and democracy and science through the lenses of Hiroshima and genocide, and his arguments are pretty convincing. Humanity is implicit in evil, Vonnegut is a grinning rebel against responsible parties, and his claim is that your religion and your scientific discoveries are worthless without moral bearings to reel them in.

Do you object?

 

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Further reading

What Christians Can Learn From An Atheist

Masanobu Fukuoka And The Philosophy Behind The Science

Wendell Berry On Paths V. Roads

Wanna Change The World? Shake Someone’s Hand!

Author Quotes: Albert Camus’s Atheist Perspective On Christianity, Part II


“What the world expects of Christians is that Christians should speak out, loud and clear, and that they should voice their condemnation in such a way that never a doubt, never the slightest doubt, could rise in the heart of the simplest man. That they should get away from abstraction and confront the blood-stained face history has taken on today. The grouping we need is a grouping of men resolved to speak out clearly and to pay up personally. . .

———-

And now, what can Christians do for us?
To begin with, give up empty quarrels, the first of which is the quarrel about pessimism. . .

If Christianity is pessimistic as to man, it is optimistic as to human destiny. Well, I can say that, pessimistic as to human destiny, I am optimistic as to man. And not in the name of a humanism that always seemed to me to fall short, but in the name of an ignorance that tries to negate nothing.

This means that the words “pessimism” and “optimism” need to be clearly defined and that, until we can do so, we must pay attention to what unites us rather than to what separates us.

———–

We are faced with evil. And, as for me, I feel rather as Augustine did before becoming a Christian when he said: “I tried to find the source of evil and I got nowhere.” But it is also true that I, and a few others, know what must be done, if not to reduce evil, as least not to add to it. Perhaps we cannot prevent this world from being a world in which children are tortured. But we can reduce the number of tortures children. And if you don’t help us, who else in the world can help us do this?

. . .It may be, I am we’ll aware, that Christianity will answer negatively. Oh, not by your mouths, I am convinced. But it may be, and this is even more probable, that Christianity will insist on maintaining a compromise. . .Possibly it will insist on losing once and for all the virtue of revolt and indignation that belonged to it long ago. In that case Christians will live and Christianity will die.”

– Excerpts from Albert Camus The Unbeliever And Christians

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In Part I, Camus opened this lecture with his own gracious disclaimer on Christianity.

Camus gave this lecture in 1948, in the wake of WWII. As a humanist and also a passionately moral man, his calls to action were built upon wreckage of the war and the seeming ambivalence of the church at large to the world’s suffering. He calls to question whether a Christian should be so preoccupied with the eternal question that he disregards fighting for goodness here on earth. His discerning insights into the proper out-workings of this faith and his willingness to take on the same harsh implications of the role of outspoken defender of the weak are something powerful to behold.

Author Quotes: John Updike and The Necessity Of The Uber-Miracle


Make no mistake: if He rose at all
it was as His body;
if the cells’ dissolution did not reverse, the molecules
reknit, the amino acids rekindle,
the Church will fall.

It was not as the flowers,
each soft Spring recurrent;
it was not as His Spirit in the mouths and fuddled
eyes of the eleven apostles;
it was as His flesh: ours.

The same hinged thumbs and toes,
the same valved heart
that–pierced–died, withered, paused, and then
regathered out of enduring Might
new strength to enclose.

Let us not mock God with metaphor,
analogy, sidestepping, transcendence;
making of the event a parable, a sign painted in the
faded credulity of earlier ages:
let us walk through the door.

The stone is rolled back, not papier-mâché,
not a stone in a story,
but the vast rock of materiality that in the slow
grinding of time will eclipse for each of us
the wide light of day.

And if we will have an angel at the tomb,
make it a real angel,
weighty with Max Planck’s quanta, vivid with hair,
opaque in the dawn light, robed in real linen
spun on a definite loom.

Let us not seek to make it less monstrous,
for our own convenience, our own sense of beauty,
lest, awakened in one unthinkable hour, we are
embarrassed by the miracle,
and crushed by remonstrance.

SEVEN STANZAS AT EASTER

John Updike, 1960.
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I have been reading a lot about John Updike lately, both his Pulitzer-prize winning fiction and his philosophical essays and memoirs. He seems a man with uniquely developed perspectives and he’s climbing quickly to the top of my “Need To Read” list. In my earliest endeavors to learn about the man I stumbled upon this poem, at just the right moment.

Author Quotes: Albert Camus’s Atheist Perspective On Christianity, Part I


“Inasmuch as you have been so kind as to invite a man who does not share your convictions to come and answer the very general question that you are raising in these conversations, before telling you what I think unbelievers expect of Christians, I should like first to acknowledge your intellectual generosity by stating a few principles.

First, there is a lay pharisaism in which I shall strive not to indulge. To me a lay pharisee is the person who pretends to believe that Christianity is an easy thing and asks of the Christian, on the basis of an external view of Christianity, more than he asks of himself. I believe indeed that the Christian has many obligations but that it is not up to the man who rejects them himself to recall their existence to anyone who has already accepted them. . .

Secondly, I wish to declare also that, not feeling that I possess any absolute truth or any message, I shall never start from the supposition that Christian truth is illusory, but merely from the fact that I could not accept it. . .

Having said that, it will be easier or me to state my third and last principle. It is simple and obvious. I shall not try to change anything that I think or anything that you think (insofar as I can judge of it) in order to reach a reconciliation that would be agreeable to all. On the contrary, what I feel like telling you today is that the world needs real dialogue, that falsehood is just as much the opposite of dialogue as is silence, and that the only possible dialogue is the kind between people who remain what they are and speak their minds. This is tantamount to saying that the world of today needs Christians who remain Christians. The other day at the Sorbonne, speaking to a Marxist lecturer, a Catholic priest said in public that he too was anticlerical. Well, I don’t like priests who are anticlerical any more than philosophies that are ashamed of themselves. Hence I shall not, as far as I am concerned, try to pass myself off as a Christian in your presence. I share with you the same revulsion from evil. But I do not share your hope, and I continue to struggle against this universe in which children suffer and die.”

– Albert Camus, from his 1948 essay, The Unbeliever and Christians
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Although he tended to shy away from the categorizations, Noble-prize winning author Albert Camus is known as an important figure of both Absurdist and existential schools of philosophy. He was also an atheist who knew how to speak respectfully to those with whom he had fundamental disagreements. Here we have him not only spelling out the ideals that led him to this perspective but also putting them into play. The above mentioned essay was originally the introductory statements of a lecture he gave at the Dominican Monastery of Latour-Maubourg.

I use social media and I live in America. Every day I see articles and endless comment threads spewing violently anti-dialogue hatred. As of recently I have also had the personal pleasure of entering into a couple of lengthy, social media based conversations with those of drastically opposing world-views. It brings me immense joy to be able still to find and honestly give the title of “friend” to those opposite who are interested in expressing themselves without contempt for their fellow human beings. We need more authentic dialoguers.

I approach the body materials of Camus’s The Unbeliever And Christians in Part II.