Wandering out of Paradise

Dear Ernest,

When I consider how often I have, in light of careful observation, esteemed with high regard the astucity of your character, I then hold little doubt that you have noted, with equal wonder as have I, the astounding level of passivity with which many people appear to wander through the world, conducting their lives, it seems, as one heedlessly roams the streets of a darkened city, tending neither toward any purpose nor sense of destination.  Such people, we can only assume, are by no means exempted from the existential worries and struggles of an active mind, nor from any like burden, I imagine, that we ordinarily associate with an intellectual life style, for these supposed symptoms of the philosopher are really nothing more or less than the universal agonies of the human condition, and we find them inescapable in all modes of living, regardless of whether they are illuminated by the words of a scholar.  Contrary to what the new agers and postmodernists would have us believe, it seems that human nature is quite the same in any and all realms: the moment we engage with people, we find ourselves at war with them in some manner or another, but if we then retire to the secret worlds of our own minds, we will be equally at war with ourselves—move society from the physical plane of existence to a mode of being on the internet and shortly you will have the same defects pulsing through cyberspace as formerly infected the oceans and seven continents.  In short, there is no diversion from adversity, no respite from the enduring pains of human life, and no clever way out of the many problems and questions that are imposed on us from the moment we are born; all people are at all times and in all manners subject to the concerns that naturally come with being human.

In your last letter: “How are we to know about matters of ultimate faith?”

Commonly, faith is thought of as a kind of alternative to reason, a net to break the fall of a weary philosopher, or a blanket to gently conceal a difficult question from view, and by virtue of this cure for the disease known as philosophy, one is suddenly freed to rove the dark roads of this world without a care for reason or thought.  But such purposeless wandering seems to me neither desirable nor even feasible, for it is impossible to escape from the prospect of destination—as even wanderers end up somewhere else than they begin—and there must also exist a reason why any given destination is achieved.  So mustn’t faith be something more than this?  We seem to often lose the rich meaning of the original Greek whenever we talk of merely ‘believing’ in Jesus; the real issue is a matter of πιστεύειν, ‘trusting’ or ‘relying on’ him, which has less to do with determining that he should be trusted and more to do with the act of trusting itself.

Adam, the lover who follows his mate out of paradise, and Thaddeus, the fool who follows his mates off a cliff, have one thing in common: they are both forced to choose between two limited alternatives, to either satisfy their desire to live or else appease their fear of living without their mates, but they are no longer afforded the option of both.  When we meet Adam wandering out of paradise in the ninth book of Milton’s poem, we are confronted by a man who has already made a sacred covenant never to abandon his bride, so the moment Eve turns from him and from God, there is no longer such a thing as paradise; if Adam remains, he breaks his covenant and looses his integrity, but if he leaves, we already know what happens.  So considered, the decision is philosophically arbitrary—there is no intellectual reason that one kind of death should be preferred to another.  Adam is not deciding, at this point, where to place his faith, for he has already chosen, and wisely so, to entrust it in whole to a creature of perfection—Eve as she once was, but now this perfect being no longer exists, and the decision remains for him not as a question of what to trust, but whether he ought to trust at all.  He chooses πιστεύειν.  And this he does not as way out of relying on his own intellect, but even as the very exercise of that faculty.  Wandering out of paradise, very much like falling off a cliff, is something that people do reluctantly; no one marches forth from the garden of Eden with any show of confidence, nor do we often see people leaping from the tops of towering crags with great command—these are duties performed with a dragging of the heals or a covering of the eyes, not in the least with great zeal or assurance, but there is much reward for whoever is true to a good purpose, even if this means giving up everything or dying on a cross.

Whoever has found his life shall lose it, but he that has lost his life for Christ’s sake shall gain it.

 

Your servant,

TWM

 

Faith, Fear, and Fiction

My honourable Ernest,

By whatever trifles of insight my fastidious, observational nature has profited me over the years, I have come to regard the dealings of nearly all mankind as some composite exercise of no more than three essential virtues or vices, which may server either one’s honour or shame, summarising the human experience as a response to the prospective unknown, an artful compilation of but three elements, namely, of faith, fear, and fiction.  Of these, perhaps only the first strikes us quite evidently as being a virtue, while the latter two seem to be either vices or mere misfortunes, but I find myself convinced that these may follow, just as does faith, directly from the most universally recognised virtue: love, on account of which is it not but a show of prudence to fear on behalf of the beloved, or of grace to envision something better wherever there may be a deficiency?  And yet it seems that love, by which name we are apt, in modern parlance, to call nearly any form of deep affection or attachment, may serve just as well as a virtue or a vice—consider the ‘love’ of Romeo for Juliet, Dido for Aeneas, or perhaps even Adam for Eve.  For many, the handling of such cases is a simple matter of refining one’s definition of the word, ‘love’, whittling it down until it lacks all such splinters and no longer allows for these uncomfortable notions of self-destruction and depravity, but the fact that an ideological carpenter finds himself with so much sanding to be done demonstrates a complicated feature of human nature; there is a fine line, as it turns out, between love, the highest virtue, and hate, its utter opposite, which is the lowest vice.

We are left puzzling over just such a paradox when Milton depicts for us the role of love in losing paradise; I am referring mainly to the drama that unfolds in book nine of the Paradise Lost, the apex of which we might explore at line 896 and following.  Adam has yet to partake of the fruit, when he somehow finds time to unravel an entire speech to consider Eve’s demise and the human condition, doing so—quite miraculously it seems—without Eve hearing so much as a single word.  Our present focus lies in lines 904-8:

… Some cursed fraud

Of enemy hath beguil’d thee, yet unknown,

And mee with thee hath ruin’d, for with thee

Certain my resolution is to Die:

How can I live without thee?

It is difficult to regard Adam’s love for Eve as a virtue, when it seems so distinctly, in this fictitious depiction, to serve as his hamartia.  Adam has invented a fiction, a beautiful, quixotic dream, that perhaps even the fallen Eve is the same woman whom he so loved from the start, perhaps he may yet find all the former beauty and splendour of the divine paradise even among its ruins.  Along with this fiction, which by an uneasy inclination we are tempted to consider a display of grace, he fears, and prudently so, what the future may be apart from Eve.  Ultimately it seems that for better or for worse and by virtue of his connubial duty to Eve, he has no choice but to invest total faith in the judgment of his beloved.  He is like the charismatic man who follows his friends when they all decide to jump off a cliff—for whom we may hold a certain admiration, regarding him, perhaps, as a charming and credulous fool, but more pragmatically, we must also fear for his own safety and well-being.

Perhaps the most peculiar aspect of Milton’s drama is the way it ends.  Paradise is in fact Regained, and in some very bizarre sense, it seems the whole drama of all mankind is ultimately to be so reconciled.  On the other side of death, we know there is a resurrection, where by virtue of Adam’s vice, his absurd and inappropriate faith, he lives once more.  By God’s grace all that has been broken is redeemed to something better still than it once was; as if even the fall of man itself were in His plan.  In this way, it seems that something evil in itself may be used for a good end.  The crunching of an apple echoes throughout all eternity as an object of universal derision, but God has harmonised this disgraceful memory with sweeter tones than we could ever imagine, reworking the whole chorus of angels in heaven so that it may be all the more beautiful yet again.

 

Your servant,

TWM

The Poetic Optimism of Christmas

Some three or four years ago, I and three others had a discussion on the existence of God and whether, if God exists, he is anything like the God we find in the Christian Bible.  That particular discussion was between two Christians, myself included, and two atheists or agnostics.  At a moment in the discussion that, to this day, stands as an exceptionally vivid recollection in my mind, one of the non-christian gentleman asked of a particular doctrine, ‘but what’s the point of that?’, as if to say that the notion was unpleasant or inconvenient, to which the other offered the corrective reply, ‘No, it isn’t a matter of practicality, they actually believe it’s true’.

What was so memorable for me about this moment, and what should be so significant about it for others, is the way it blatantly uncovered a fundamental misunderstanding that many non-christians have about Christianity: we Christians do, as my friend said, actually believe in what we read in the Bible.  This seems, to most Christians, like it should be obvious, but from outside the tradition looking inward, it’s not.  Outside of Christianity, allover the world, people believe in things not because they are necessarily convinced of their truth, but because they want to.  In the common model, human comfort and happiness precedes, and is even the essential purpose of, human reasoning and philosophy, and philosophy is built around what is pleasant and practical; it is a rationalisation of that which is easiest to believe.

This pattern of human behaviour likely stretches all the way back to the beginning of mankind’s existence, ruling the human mind ever since we left the Garden of Eden, but I can at least vouch for its continued existence and dominance since antiquity.  This is significant because it means that even since the very birth of Christianity, there has been friction between the rest of the world and this very different kind of tradition—a kind of tradition in which, among other things, the sacred text is believed to be absolutely true.

At large, the pagan traditions of the ancient Greeks and Romans centred their doctrines around the magnificent works of the epic poets, such as Homer and Vergil, among the which are the yet extant Iliad, Odyssey, and Aeneid, and also many others we have since lost, all of which likely derived from an oral tradition predating the time of Homer around the seventh or eight century BC.  The tales of these epics were called μύθοι (transliteration: muthoi) by the Greeks, from which we get our English word, myth.  This is why the vast body of pagan religious literature in which those works are included is called ‘mythology’ in modern times.  Today, one of the primary meanings of the word ‘myth’ is ‘a false story’, but to the ancient Greeks, a μῦθος was, first and foremost, a story.  Hence, the word itself did not denote these tales as necessarily false, but even in ancient Greece, the word was also used for fables and professed works of fiction.  So, even for the ancient Greeks, as I would argue, there was a looming undertone of falsehood in the connotation of the word.

This semi-modern usage of the word myth is what makes the world of Indian religions, and many similar traditions, go round.  Indian religion is of interest because it is comparable to ancient Greek traditions in this respect.  Just as in ancient Greek mythology, there are many formulations of the same myths, and each one is considered valuable in its own right, though, to account for the contradictions, none of them need be true.  They are myths, didactic fables that have significance in the moral and philosophical principles they present, but not necessarily in their histories.

This is the same sort of religious scene into which a very different kind of story, the true story of Christ, entered some two-thousand years ago.  In principle, Christianity should not have been dramatically different from what preceded it.  We can find the idea of a reversed hierarchy, in which the God of the universe is made to be born, a man, in the humblest of circumstances—we can find something very similar to such a concept in Odysseus’ return to his family as a beggar instead of a hero, after his rightful place as head of the house has been usurped by suitors, just as Christ’s rightful sovereignty was held by the Roman empire.  And the idea of self-sacrifice is all over ancient tales of battle and κλέος, epic glory.  But these things were principles and philosophic ideals that were thought of with a kind of dreamy romanticism; they were the way things ought to be.˚

On the other hand, the radical proposition of Christianity that such stories could be historical fact, and indeed, could be the singular story of God Himself, is something all together unprecedented in human history.  In this way, Christ’s birth is the epitome of what I have called ‘poetic optimism’ in my last post.  Just as Catullus takes the vulgar understanding of love and humanity and transforms it into something better, so does Christ’s birth transform pagan mythology.

As I pointed out in my last post, our word ‘vulgar’ comes from the Latin vulgaris, meaning ‘common’, or ‘that which belongs to the vulgus, the common people’.  This is the way we might describe pagan mythology before Christ.  It was something common, and even, occasionally, something vulgar.  In Greek and Roman mythology, references to love are really references to Venus, sexuality and lust.  But Christmas presents a fresh ideal of love, a transformation of this common thing into something far more weighty and worthy.  It’s the story not of a god falling in love with or lusting over a human, but of the God displaying His sacrificial love that He has born for humanity since He first conceived of her.

_____________________

˚ On a less serious note, I’d like to point out that the Greeks even mocked the ridiculousness of their own mythology, with one of my favourite examples being a line from Aristophanes’ comedy, Birds: Heracles addresses Poseidon, “Just hold on a minute there, Poseidon, by god!  Do we really want to fight a war over a single woman?  That’s ridiculous!”  I would make a footnote explaining the humour of this line for those of you who may not get it, but this is already a footnote, and right now, making a footnote to a footnote is a little too silly even for me.

On Faith

Faith is a commonly used concept in casual discussions of epistemology.  When faced with an intellectual dilemma that we can’t quite figure out, people often turn to this idea of faith.  It’s as if we can start a logical argument, follow it step by step, and then the moment we reach something that is hard to solve, we might simply say, “well I guess you just have to have faith”.  And often, such a statement is accepted as a sufficient explanation of any phenomenon.  But why?

There seem to be all sorts of interesting and bizarre ideas out in the world about what faith is.  There are many who belief that (1) faith is some sort of gut feeling about what is true and what isn’t, and then there are others who seem to think that (2) faith is the act of believing something in spite of reason.  Still others believe (3) it is neither of these, and then there are those who believe (4) it is all of the above (including the latter!).  But over arching all of these claims about what faith is, there exists a common thread: faith is a virtue.

As for myself, I don’t think it is possible for me to count belief against reason as a virtue.  Indeed, I feel compelled (from my gut) to think quite the opposite; that is, that honest scholarship and intellectual searching for truth are virtues, and that supposing things to be true just because you want them to be is a vice.

There is, however, something to be said for each side of the argument, and therefore, I should think that faith might have at least a few definitions, all of which function on different levels at different times, and perhaps even in ways that interact which each other definition.

As for the first definition, I might refer the reader to my post on “The Art of Thought.”  It seems that there is a particular aesthetic of that which is true that pleases our higher desires more than falsehood, which might please our lower desires.  Indeed, within the logical scope, we are made to assume that the human mind posses a natural inclination towards the truth (the inclination of logic), and so it doesn’t seem much of a stretch that our sense of aesthetic should have a similar inclination.  Hence there is some merit to be found in the virtue of faith as it is a guttural instinct of what is true.

I of course mean this from a purely normative perspective.  I do not see reason why a person might be right in thinking something is true about the physical realm due to instinct.  For example, I would not think that someone could instinctively devise a model of quantum gravity that would properly solve the physical dilemma.  That instead requires research and usage of empirical data (which cannot be formed in the gut–unless the subject matter is biology).

The second definition is, perhaps, the most troubling to me.  How am I supposed to believe in that which my reason tells me is false?  How am I even supposed to believe then, that such is a definition of faith?  Am I supposed to even have faith regarding the definition of faith?  All this seems ridiculous, for “sure he that made us, with such large discourse, / Looking before and after, gave us not that godlike capability and reason / to fust in us unused.”

However there is yet some merit in the claim.  I would first refer the reader to my quixotic post, and see if the sort of valiant battle described there doesn’t fall under this definition of the virtue of faith.  But aside from that, we might say there are at least cases in which one might believe something not in spite of his reason, but perhaps without reason.

If reason is a faculty of perception, like vision, then I can only use it on that which it perceives.  I doubt everything I see, and it is only that which I cannot see that I cannot doubt.  I cannot see whether my normative vision, my reason, is accurately portraying reality to me, and so I cannot rationally doubt that it is.  “Faith is the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1).

So all that is well, but I suspect faith of having even more compelling grounds than these.  So far we have but addressed the nuances of faith, but on a more general level, all we have really formed is a definition of sanity, for of course a sane person will not believe something in spite of reason nor doubt something without reason, and perhaps not even think against his or her guttural inclinations.  And all that might indeed be a virtue, but it seems a simple one–like the virtue of refraining to commit murder.  And so I feel led to believe that faith is something more than just this.

Perhaps there is that part of faith which functions to determine what the mind can best think to be true, but the core virtue of faith is perhaps the act of willing the belief in such things.  I have a friend who once told me, “hay aquellos que saben a dios, y entonces hay aquellos que lo conocen,” which roughly translates “there are those who know about God, and then there are those who know God personally.”  He said it in Spanish so that he could use the verbs saber and conocer, which come from the Latin words sapere and cognoscere from whence we get “cognition” and “savant” respectively.  There is no literal English translation for these words, but “saber” means, roughly, to know a thing or to know how to do something, while “conocer” means to know a person or place.

So what my friend was getting at is that there is a big difference between knowing that God exists and knowing him personally.  Perhaps this distinction is something of the one that needs to be made between the simple side of faith as we have discussed it thus far and the profound part of faith.  For it is one thing for me to be aware of God and to write blog posts about him, but it is an entirely different matter for me to know him as intimately as I do myself.  The call to faith is one to not only be aware of the truth, but to trust in what is true.  Not only must you know rationally that it is wisest for you to give your whole heart, mind, and soul over to God for him alone to keep, but you must actually do it.