Posts Tagged ‘meaning of life’

SERMON: “Worthless” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, March 13th, 2011

“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.

t.n.s.r. bob

SERMON: “GOD AND FRUITCAKE” by the not-so-reverend bob

Sunday, February 28th, 2010

One of biggest questions we tend to ask of science is: “Does God exist”?  I think the more relevant question we are really asking is this:  “What does life (read: my life) really mean if there is no god?” or as Christian apologist Francis Shaeffer put it:  “How then shall we live?”

It’s not, of course, a simple question with an answer on the order of “cheese”, or “a slight increase in blood pressure”.  A cascade of issues come to mind: What, then, is the meaning of life?  Is there right and wrong without god?  Who (or what) will I call upon in times of need or distress?  And each of these questions is going to further split into a tree of branching sub-questions which will, eventually (if we follow them to their rational, evidence-based conclusion) lead us back to the naked simplicity of our existence:  We are evolved primates, mammals, carbon-based life forms existing upon a green planet spinning in a solar system that is itself spinning in a vast universe of a practically incomprehensible size and age.  That having been settled (in its unsettling way), we can return to our own (relatively) brief lives among our kin and community and examine how we are to live our lives in a god-less universe.

The simple answer is that we go on living pretty much as we always have, only with the added appreciation of our own biological complexity and innate social and moral natures that have made us such a unique animal on this globe.  In short, nothing changes.  The sun will still rise, your favorite foods will still taste good to you, and the loving touch of a friend or partner will still calm, comfort or arouse you.  Though the loss of god seems at first catastrophic, in time the idea of god can be seen for the cumbersome (if colorful) overlay it was: a blanket through which we tried to view reality even as we wrapped ourselves in the comforting illusions it gave us.  In time the desperate question of “could I live without god?” becomes, more and more, “why in the world did I think having a god was a good idea in the first place”?

The most surprising thing to discover is that the idea of god is not particularly helpful or effective and is — in fact and in practice — often deleterious to a satisfying human existence.  Of course the very idea of treating god as merely an “idea” is anathema to many.  But that is because most of us were born with the idea, and have never known a time when the idea of god’s existence was not supported by many (most?) in our culture.  But I’m certain all of us have had the experience of breaking a bad habit, where a particular way of doing something (say operating a car or using a power tool) that we may have picked up from our first teachers was shown to be a dangerous technique, so we learned to do it better or more safely.  But had no-one taken the time to teach us, or should we never had seen someone driving a car or running a circular saw differently, we would never have even known that there was a different way of behaving.

And so, in “Christian” America, there are many who have never even contemplated a world without god in it, nor been aware of examples of others living quality lives free of god (which is one of the reasons I choose to speak openly about this topic).

We know enough about heredity to know that all culture is taught and that our genetic inheritance amounts to about 30% of our potential as humans.  (For more on this read:  We adopt the habits, attitudes and practices of our parents and immediate family.  Hence our inherited religion is most often an “accident” of birth.  This alone should cast doubt on the claims of each religion to be “the” one, true path to Heaven.  A casual reading about the stunning cultural diversity of humanity on this planet makes clear that all of our religious beliefs are parochial.  The religious expression of humans is a cultural expression, based on tradition and geography for its transmission from generation to generation.  In that it is a purely natural phenomenon that works in a cultural parallel to the “natural selection” described in Darwin’s theory of Evolution (for more a theory on the transmission and evolution of ideas, see Dawkins “The God Delusion”).  Not to put too fine a point on it, but religion persists by purely human cultural means and needs no actual living “god” for its continuation.

To me, simply holding a rock in my hand disproves god, for all the major religions hold to a view that the earth and its inhabitants were created in a single act by a living, personal god (generally some thousands of years ago).  Yet any pebble you might pick up while crossing a dirt lot is likely to be many millions of years old (and perhaps billions).  If you happen to pick up a piece of sedimentary rock, it will probably contain fossils of long-extinct species.  In our own bodies scientists have discovered huge amounts of “junk” DNA left over from our evolutionary past, and half the cellular weight of our bodies consist of bacteria that have co-evolved with us and our now essential to our survival (see naturalist E.O. Wilson’s “Creation: An Appeal to Save Life On Earth”).  Chimpanzees are more closely related to us genetically than they are to Orangutans, which points further to our shared ancestor some 5 million years ago.

Each day, it seems, science is making new discoveries that reveal ever deeper levels of complexity in our living, breathing existence.  What then forms is a rich tapestry of fact and tantalizing hint of further understandings that, when embraced, make the ancient religious myths of our origins appear as pale and anemic attempts to explain life to those then living it.  But tradition is strong, and family tradition even stronger.   I am the kind of person I am due in large part to the kind of people my parents were.  But being a large-brained primate, I am able to observe in myself the very traits over which I seem powerless to alter.  Maybe this is what Paul was getting at in his letter to the Romans ( “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate to do”) only he comes to the conclusion that it is his wicked, sinful nature that is warring against his holy, Christ-centered spirit.  I come to a different conclusion.

For as Darwin said: “Man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin”.  In essence, we carry in our frame, our chemistry, our biology and our psychology the evidence of every stage of our evolution from the first quivering life in the first seas on a younger earth.  Against this, the idea of “god” becomes one more fascinating cultural artifact from our progression from tree-dwelling primates to the upright humans who now study diseases that until a hundred years ago were still thought to be caused by evil spirits.

It’s important, I think, for us to recall how far we have come in a short time.  George Washington was ushered to an early grave by the ancient (and still then endorsed) practice of bloodletting.  The 1918 Influenza pandemic was caused by a virus that could not even be seen by human eyes until the invention of the scanning electron microscope in 1935.  So it’s little wonder that we still hold on to outdated and verifiably wrong beliefs about everything from the age of the earth to quack medical cures to what deity controls (purely) natural disasters.  We remain a mix of our ancient, primitive and modern selves.  We are, in essence, still an ice-age nomadic people learning to drive in modern cities.

This is the reality of who and what we are (and the supporting evidence is there for anyone who wants to find it).  Science cannot disprove the existence of god, it can only offer that there is no evidence to support the idea.  In every area that religion has offered answers to a primitive humanity, science has demonstrated the actual natural causes of everything from disease to mental illness to hurricanes and extinctions.  Yet the idea of god lingers, like a beloved family tradition that no one is willing to see end.  Sort of like fruitcake.  We all joke about the poor fruitcake that at one time must have been a real treat to a lot of people, but even as we joke about it, fruitcakes are manufactured by the millions.  A few of us, surely, must really enjoy them.  The rest of us are somehow comforted by the continuity of the cake that we all love to joke about.

I’m reminded of a book I recently read on Northern European Mythology that discussed the arrival of Christianity in the northern countries during the Viking age.  I had long held that Christianity had been the bad guy, burning and killing its way across my ancestral homelands.  But, it turns out, that the native Northern European’s beliefs in their gods had become a sort of joke by this time;  in short, people still told the stories, but as society underwent change the stories had become more comical, and the gods were the subject of some ridicule.  It would seem that the Norse were ready for a new god.  The old ones having become, well, like fruitcake.

That’s how I view god now.  Because it is a human invention (and because I, myself believed for so long), I have some tenderness toward god’s history in human cultural evolution (as I do the fruitcake).  I just don’t want either one for Christmas.