Archive for March, 2011
REVIEWS FROM THE REV: “Inventing George Washington: America’s Founder: in Myth and Memory” by Edward G. LengelSunday, March 27th, 2011
Edward Lengel is editor in chief of the Papers of George Washington and a professor at the University of Virginia and is, therefore, one particularly qualified to speak on the subject of the “real” versus the “imagined” George Washington. And in “Inventing George Washington” he does just that, beginning with the mythology that sprang up around the still-living General and President, and following the various epochs of myth-making (and debunking) that followed, right up until the present day.
As the title suggests, this is not a book about the life of George Washington, per se: it is about the various lives he has lived in American popular imagination, and the motivations of the individuals behind the many imagined events and traits of character that have attached themselves (with varying degrees of stickiness) to the man.
It’s a fascinating journey, and Lengel is an enthusiastic guide. His attitude is one you would expect of an editor of historical documents (he will not attach his stamp of approval to any tale that is not supported by hard evidence), but he has a sense of self-awareness and humanity that keep this book from being purely pedantic. (The fact that he does not answer every myth with a diatribe on what HE knows to be FACTUAL is, I think, a mark of real restraint).
The result is a book that says as much about American popular culture, politics and religious marketing as it does about our first President.
As an example of the mythology around Washington, consider the well-known image of the General kneeling in prayer in the snow at Valley Forge (a tale, it should be noted, that first entered circulation shortly after his death), and how it was put to use:
“In life, Washington’s beliefs had been ambiguous — he avoided referring to Jesus Christ in his letters, did not kneel during prayer, and often dodged out of church before communion. But the eulogists would not admit any doubt: “Let deists, atheists, and infidels of every description reflect on this,” thundered the Reverend Samuel G. Bishop of Pittsfield, New Hampshire: “the brave, the great, good Washington, under God the savior of his country, was not ashamed to acknowledge and adore a greater Savior, whom they despise and reject.” (P-13)
Ambiguity, it would seem, turns out to be a sort of watchword when it comes to understanding Washington. Here was a man who was keenly aware of his role not just to his country, but to history. And though he took great pains to be sure that every scrap of his official papers were preserved (pains that were insufficient to keep his ancestors from scattering them to the winds, however!), he seems to have been a man who was circumspect in what he revealed of his inner feelings and beliefs while he lived. It’s almost as if he sought to be the kind of figure a nation could look back upon in crisis by being just non-specific enough of an individual that the many could adapt his image to their own immediate needs. That he held secrets and specific beliefs, there can be little doubt. That he wanted to share them with the rest of us, well, that’s a different story!
Once again, we are offered a great little read from the one person we would wish to write on such a subject.
It may not surprise you to know that I’m always sticking my evolutionary nose into other people’s world-views whenever opportunity allows. Just in the time between typing the title of this sermon and writing the first sentence, I was interrupted by an acquaintance to chat about this and that, and by the end we were talking about the popular perception that the apocalypse is upon us (as evidenced by the ever-popular sign of earthquakes, or “superbugs’ — to cite the two examples in our conversation), to which I gave (in quick succession) the three following factoids: 1) Viruses evolve faster than we humans do (as clear evidence of evolution and also to show that the idea of disease as a directed judgement from God is absurd); 2) That the human body is more than half bacteria (by cellular weight — oh, and I threw in that we probably began as bacteria), and: 3) That we live on a cooling planet (my blanket answer to our constant surprise at earthquakes).
Now, really, who but an evolution nerd would squeeze that much annoying science into a friendly conversation?
As if I needed more proof of my evolution nerd status, I took a series of on-line ethics surveys that were being conducted by two university psychologists, and one of those surveys asked a series of questions that were designed to show where one stood on the “conservative/liberal” political spectrum. I was surprised to see that I was actually a bit on the conservative side compared to most of my fellow self-identifying liberals in all areas but one: when it came to Evolution versus Creationism, I was way to the left of even the lefties.
I can’t help but be reminded of my Evangelical years when I get the feeling that I am barking like a voice in the wilderness about a subject that very few people consider relevant to their lives. Of course I think it’s relevant because it makes so much about life make sense. And so I have the fervor of a convert, which is about the most annoying thing there is on the planet (think of a friend that has just recently quit drinking or smoking — for a while their turn-around is the ONLY subject on their mind, and the source of a certain focused zeal).
Of course one of the reasons I’m so ready to leap to the defense of rational thought is that we humans seem naturally predisposed to jump to the most irrational conclusions when faced with natural disaster (in particular). We are pattern-seekers, and will find one whether or not a pattern actually exists. Hence the Facebook posting from an evangelical friend:
“Sept 11th (NY) Jan 11th (Haiti) and March 11th (Japan).Luke 21:10-11Then jesus said his disciples: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.There will be great earthquakes’,famines and pestilences in various places,and fearful events and great signs from heaven. ‘Jesus says for behold I come quickly,’ * so ask yourself ARE YOU READY?* repost this.”
I also watched a video that displayed the “beauty of mathematics” (as a sign of God’s order) that assigned a numeric value to every letter in the alphabet, then took a series of phrases and “added” up the numbers, ending with “The love of God” adding up to 101% (the popular figure for the optimum human effort). I couldn’t help but think, however that “The love of Dog” would also equal 101% by that test.
These are highly typical examples of what the human mind finds irresistible. But is there really any harm in such nonsense? Who knows. Clearly I think it’s better to believe more in fact than in fantasy, but maybe that’s just because I’ve become such an evolution nerd. Or maybe I feel like such an evolution nerd because I am surrounded by so much non-rational nonsense.
When I made a decision last year to start writing op/ed pieces for my local newspaper, my motivation was to counter the rising popularity of the TEA Party movement with a dose of rationality. I decided that I had a sort of duty to at least be a “speed bump” to slow, if not stop, them. Now, I have sympathies with the feelings of the TEA Party regarding certain things, but what I mostly saw was the panoply of hair-brained beliefs that were being swept along with their political agenda (the “Birthing” controversy, for example). But in all of my engagements with that group, I came out feeling like I had charged valiantly against an impenetrable fortress of motivated ignorance.
There is clearly more to this sort of thing than the difficulties of countering a popular political movement (to take the TEA Party example). Underlying it all is the problem of the ways in which our evolved primate brains work, and the fact that most of the operators of those brains have no frigging idea that they are operating under any sort of mammalian limitations to cognition (for more on that, see “Kluge: The Haphazard Construction of the Human Mind” reviewed on this blog). But there I am again: proselytizing, preaching, evangelizing about my “version” of the truth, like a true nerd.
I am like every other human in that I have a sense of self so inflated as to believe that I can, on some level, achieve a workable knowledge of the “truth”. On the other hand, I have enough of an awareness of the limitations of that self that I know that the best I’m going to get is a “workable” knowledge. One thing about living in the age we do is that we cannot help but know that we are surrounded by a record of human knowledge such that no single human mind can hope to contain it, not matter how much study or time is given the pursuit. And our collective knowledge increases incredibly every day with each new invention or discovery, so that our own store of knowledge can be seen as a mirror of the universe that is still speeding up some 13.6 billions years after it began.
Damn, I did it again. I had to get that “age of the universe” thing in there, didn’t I?
Well, I told you at the outset what I was. Now I’ve just gone and proved it. Next thing you know I’ll be going door to door, asking folks if I could share a little literature about Charles Darwin…
“How old is the universe?” is one of those questions that separates the creationists from everybody else. It also turns out to be a question that we have only recently answered (and by recent I mean during my lifetime). But between Cardinal Usher’s attempt to use all of the “begats” of the Bible to come up with an age for the earth of about 6,000 years and the decoding of the Cosmic Microwave Background that showed the actual age of the universe to be some 13.6 billion years, there is a tale of science, astronomy, discovery, mistakes, corrections and dogged determination that makes the closing statement of this book a reasonable one:
“The trials and errors, painstaking observations and brilliant insights that have led to this answer amount to one of mankind’s most impressive intellectual achievements.”
And impressive it is. Impressive and complicated. Reading about it turned out to be, at times, challenging for my primate brain to process.
This book is written for a popular audience, and I can find no fault with the writing. The problem of a book like this is that the author (who is clearly in command of the information) is attempting to describe some very complex and mind-bending concepts to a big-brained animal that was grunting in a cave somewhere not that long ago (that would be us humans). I simply had to allow myself a pass to not completely grasp every mathematical formula (the one for determining the mass of planets, for example). (Since i was not studying for an exam, I could afford to let the occasional formula or calculation pass, and trust that I was getting the bigger picture. And boy, is there a bigger picture here)!
If you are like me (not an astronomer) the description of the life cycle of a star will blow your ever-loving mind. Or sections like the following, that, in an attempt to describe how it is that all of the photons left over from the “big bang” came to be pretty much the same temperature due to the conditions of the “Inflationary epoch” of our young universe, explains that:
“…the diameter of the universe expanded from a size roughly a billion times smaller than the diameter of a proton to about the size of a softball. This increase in volume by a factor of about ten to the fiftieth power (1050) occurred when the universe was only ten to the minus thirty-five seconds old (ten billionths of one billionth of one billionth of one billionth of a second) and lasted until the universe was about ten to the minus thirty-four seconds old (one hundred billionth of billionth of one billionth of one billionth of one billionth of a second).”
So THAT’S why all those photons are the same temperature: they were all formed during a time when the universe was really, really, really small!
(And we’re not even past the first second of our universe’s life, with over 13 billion more years to describe!)
The selection quoted above should give you an idea of what you’re in for with this book. Expect to spend some time with it (it’s not a fast read). Having said that, however, it’s a good read: as well and clearly written as any book on this subject could be, I expect. It’s an enjoyable journey, and worth the effort for the moments of brain-twisting, jaw-dropping awe at the realities of the formation of everything from the carbon that is the basis for life to the origins of the stars, planets and galaxies that populate our expanding universe.
The book takes us step by step from the beginning to the end of the story (literally: the answer to the titular question comes on the very last pages!). The book does not dawdle, or mess around. It simply has a lot of ground (space?) to cover.
I recommend this book.
When I was a nineteen year-old evangelical Christian in the Coast Guard, a youth minister at the Baptist Church I attended in Alameda, California recommended a book to me. “The Pursuit of God” (by A.W. Tozer) was one of the few books I ever read that I can clearly point to as being life-altering. Each chapter was an exercise in giving one’s self up to God, and each in it’s way was frightening, challenging and — ultimately — satisfying. For I was serious about my belief: if this was, indeed, the way to God, I wanted to know it.
The chapter I recall the most was called “The Blessedness of Possessing Nothing”. In that chapter I was challenged to think of my most cherished personal possession, and to then surrender its fate to God’s will. I thought of the antique Civil War saber I had purchased at a junk shop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania while visiting there with my uncle Ben. My heart was seized with anguish at this act (if it sounds silly to anguish over a sword, try putting yourself in my position by imagining the one thing in your life you would most fear to lose or — to put a finer point on it — the thing you would most resist giving freely to an enemy or a complete stranger).
The theological basis of this exercise was the notion that everything we have is God’s to begin with, which carried within it the understanding that anything we might be desperate to covet is the very thing God himself might take away from us so that we should have “no other god” in our hearts. (So: better to surrender it now when its surrender could benefit our soul and stave off a potential “book of Job” moment).
I took the challenge seriously, and surrendered my saber to God (a fairly potent symbolic act, now that I think about it). And from that day my relationship to material things was altered: my sense of ownership of anything physical held to be transitory at best.
This was a moment of grace, of spiritual transformation, of deepening my understanding of my God.
What, then, do I make of such a moment when I now believe that there never was a God to make such a demand of me?
There is a paradox in the whole question of whether God exists or not, because the reality of our experience of the divine, the numinous and the spiritual does not (it turns out) really hinge on whether there is an actual god/spirit/intelligence behind those experiences. These are our own subjective emotional and cognitive events. The fact that they are mostly generated within our own consciousnesses has little bearing on the quality of the experience. So to say that there is no God is most often met with a response along the lines of “But I know what I’ve experienced! I have felt God’s presence, witnessed His grace, known His forgiveness, etc!”. And, indeed, I would argue that we have felt/seen/known those experiences. But I would next argue that they are all events that have explanations in purely natural or mechanical terms (even if those explanations might often have more to do with human perception that tricks of nature).
I’ve rattled on about this notion of a god-less universe for the last few years. We clearly know enough now about biology, cosmology and every other “logy” to know that our religious belief systems are ancient, archaic (?), but highly-evolved satisfactions of our wish-fulfillment fantasies of a paternal, caring presence in a sometimes cold and threatening universe. Religion has the advantage of having always benefited from (and, in truth, traded in) those ubiquitous experiences that have always seemed most transcendent and mysterious to our species.
What we have then, basically, is the mountain of evidence that the world, the universe and everything operate on very natural laws that have never required the actions of an intelligent creator, cast into competition with the breadth of human emotional experience which is very loathe to give ground to cold rationalism when the airy-fairy feels so much more comforting to us.
So is there a God or not?
I’ve reached the point where it seems more and more pointless to argue about the existence of God, because even when God is removed from the equation, we will all continue to have “god” experiences, because they are (I would argue) a natural (and, therefore, inevitable) by-product of our evolved mammalian consciousnesses. In that sense, God will never go away, even though he (or she) never really existed in the first place.
Or did he/she?
What am I really arguing against? For if I argue against a god that has only ever existed in our experiences of conscious living, then am I really making a rational argument at all? Am I not really just saying that the problem is that I don’t like what you call your particular collection of transcendent experiences? Pretty much.
I’m splitting hairs, then: validating the natural human experience of consciousness, but criticizing the false externalized (read “heavenly) conclusions we draw from those experiences.
(There are practical reasons for doing this, of course: anything that can undercut the legitimacy of violent, oppressive fundamentalism as it heaps unneeded misery upon millions of living humans every day can’t be all bad).
I set out on a course to find God when I was 13 by becoming a Christian. When I turned 28, God was gone, and I had to learn to be alone in the universe and to make sense of what I had (until then) experienced as “spirituality”.
What has been most striking to me since then is just how little my experience of life changed with God out of the picture. This led me to the eventual understanding that my (and by extension: “our”) experiences of the “supernatural” weren’t supernatural at all (see Daniel Dennett’s “Breaking the Spell” — reviewed on this blog). This is how I can now believe the stories people tell me of God, even if cannot concur in their attribution of the source of those experiences.
But life is what it is, and if God is the sum of our experiences of “God” (spirit, mystery), then I have to say that God does, indeed, exist. As soon as I say that, however, I feel the need to correct and say: but not really.
So the answer is a qualified yes, or no. Or, yes and no. Or maybe god is something that we can only possess in the way that we possess our own experiences of living, experiences which we interpret and then hold on to as memories. Does a memory actually exist? Yes, in its way, and for as long as the brain that contains it continues to function. After that, it is gone. And so “god” will continue to exist, as long as there are humans to keep him, her or it alive.
Maybe it would be a good exercise to give up our most cherished idea of God, just like I gave up my beloved saber on that tearful, prayerful Summer night in California, and discover the “blessedness” of possessing nothing.
POSTSCRIPT: A few years after my dark night of the Civil War saber, a robber broke into my rickety art-student apartment in downtown Denver, and stole (among other things) that damn sword. Were I to tell that story to a fellow Christian, they would most likely say “See — you hadn’t really let it go, so God had to take it away!”. But it was that experience (and others like it since) that have shown me just how seriously I took that earlier exercise in my own “Pursuit of God”. With an actual God behind it or no, it was clearly a lesson useful for life in an uncertain world, a lesson that freed me of being overly burdened by the things I own. And that sort of thing has value in and of itself, without getting a god who likes to take his kid’s toys involved.
Of course all of the articles are short and sweet, in that Discovery magazine style. Which makes it perfect for some web-grazing.
In a few minutes I read about the latest discovery of an articulated Dimetrodon fossil in northern Texas that had its “fangs” still intact, watched a slide show of computer models made of our current line-up of potential human ancestors, saw a life-like reconstruction of what “Otzi” the “Iceman” looked like, and got side-tracked into a recently un-earthed Greek temple. You get the idea.
“As our center disintegrates, the electronic media rise and centralize to ensure their utility as a means of expression. Art, which exists to bring peace, becomes entertainment, which exists to divert, and is becoming totalitarianism, which exists to censor and control. The desire to express becomes, absent the artist and in the face of the terrifying, the need to repress. The “information age” is the creation, by the body politic, through the collective unconscious, of a mechanism of repression, a mechanism that offers us a diversion from our knowledge of our own worthlessness.” (From Three Uses of the Knife by David Mamet)
I suspect the average human’s first response to David Mamet’s statement might be a protest of “I am not worthless!” After all, are we not spending a great deal of societal energy on the generation of healthy self esteem, particularly in our children? We have, it could be argued, an entire industry (or confederation of industries) dedicated to sustaining a sense of inherent worth in the human being. The fact that we have such an industry hints at the troubling truth that Mamet is, I believe, getting at: that we all suspect, deep inside, that we are worth-less, and that we are doing everything in our power to shield ourselves from that knowledge.
Worth-less, in this sense, does not mean “bad”, “evil” or somehow unworthy of life. And I am most definitely not subscribing to the religious notion of the human as lower than dirt unless (and until) he or she is redeemed by whatever religious practice is on sale that particular day. It is simply the recognition that in the face of the sheer enormity of the universe and the mind-numbing depth of history, any claim on our part to a legacy that will last for more than a handful of years is patently absurd. No matter how many times our names are carved into stone, or cast into bronze, in time any trace of our individual lives will be erased. Even under the most extreme, best case scenario, the bronze plaque may be discovered by a future species and wondered over (just as we puzzle over the fossilized remains of extinct animals different from any we have ever seen in our time). But is that really worth anything?
(The other unsettling aspect of worthlessness on this scale is the challenge it brings to the notion of our lives having a larger purpose or meaning, or an impact on a global or cosmic scale. It is an intriguing aspect of human nature that our actual lives never seem to be quite “enough”, and so we are ever angling to acquire for them the stamp of heavenly approval).
Living as we do in an age of science we are confronted daily with mountains of evidence that seem only to remind us of our transient nature as individual living organisms. But is this the only service that such knowledge brings to us: a shattering of our cherished delusions?
As natural as it seems to be to deny the inevitability of our own eventual annihilation by death and decay — by joining together in the building of cell-phone networks and fast travel and deadlines and true-story biographies of the rich and famous among us — there is, I think, a real comfort to be found in the cessation, for a moment, of that frenetic activity in the recognition, acknowledgment, and acceptance of our own worthlessness.
Religion has learned to co-opt such moments in order turn contrition into subservience to their particular doctrine. This is rapacious, pernicious abuse. But again, this is not what I’m talking about.
I’m talking about a religious moment of the kind that might have existed in religion before drama was divorced from it by the act of religion suddenly coming to believe in it’s own stories as fact (thereby becoming one of the more popular ways for humans to attempt to cheat their inexorable fate).
We are worthless. And nothing we can ever do will change that. Great. What now?
Well, we’re still alive. Here. Now. Dancing our improbably-conscious hearts out in the days and years we have between the cradle and the grave. Our lives matter to us and to each other, and the recognition that the value we place upon that reality is the only and sufficient value we can count on is, it seems to me, the basis of humanism.
I sometimes ponder the popular notion that the only ethical, existential choice for a human being who recognizes his or her own worthlessness is to remove themselves from life. In short such an idea only re-enforces the idea that life is worth living only if it has the stamp of eternal impact upon it. I think this idea fails in the same way that religious ideas do: it is just one more way of trying to outsmart an uncaring universe by showing it a thing or two by, in effect, attempting to thwart its meaningless lack of purpose for our lives by using our own death as a sort of monkey wrench in the works. In a way this is of a kind with the fallacy of humility in any religion in which the humble servant is, by his or her (assumed superior expression of) humility, brought to the personal attention of the god of the universe!
Our solipsism is, truly, impossible to escape.
If we can manage to put all of that nonsense aside for just a moment, I believe that we can find real comfort, and a moment of peace, in the hearing of the truth spoken by Mamet. We are worthless. Recognizing that, we can release ourselves from the tyranny of eternity, of the struggle to discern the intentions of god, and get on with the business of living our lives as animals who have earned their right to life by sheer dint of being alive now.
Honestly, I can’t tell you that this is the way to happiness. (For all its evils, religious belief provides effective distraction that has been finely tuned to the sorts of things we humans deeply want to believe are true). But I can suggest that it is the path to the only genuine meaning we can hope to find in our lives and the best chance of coming to whatever terms we can with the challenges of being the conscious animal that must contemplate his or her our own existence.