More Heavy Stuff

Posted: April 1, 2009 in Braak

I’m feeling existential, I guess, I don’t know.  Probably because I have nothing to do.  Philosophy, I think, was invented by the unemployed.

Over at Another Damn Blog, in the comment section of a post that was a repost of a comment from the comment section of one of my posts…never mind, don’t worry about that.  The point is, we were talking, and this fellow named William pointed out that, while he’ll talk about abstract things on the internet, he doesn’t like talking about his actual beliefs unless he’s looking a person straight in the eye.

I think that this is generally a good policy, and I don’t fault him for it.  I am personally less hesitant to discuss my own beliefs under whatever conditions, and that got to me thinking as to why that might be.

And then THAT got me to thinking, “What exactly are my beliefs?”

Well, I puzzled around with it a little bit, and answered myself (because it’s not like I can count on you guys to answer things for me).  Part of the reason that I feel like I don’t mind talking about my beliefs is because they very rarely ever come up in a conversation, anywhere, and that’s because I have so very few of them.

I mean, belief beliefs.  Like, the kind of thing that I don’t feel like I need to justify, or make excuses for, or anything like that.  I thought about it, and I concluded that I only actually believe two things; everything else is a general principle in service to one of those two beliefs.  That is to say, my political beliefs, for example, aren’t really the foundation of my ethos–they’re just what look to me to be the most effective way of expressing my ethos in politics.

So, here it is, the Book of Braak, and its two rules.  The first one was a social/moral ethic:

We are all in this together.

That’s it.  It seems like the best way to express the fact that sometimes I want to make decisions for the good of the whole, and sometimes I’m making decisions for the good of the individual–yeah, I want the whole enterprise to work out, but I know that as a group we won’t succeed if everyone in the group feels like they’re getting stepped on.  You can’t just kick some fuckers around, because no matter where you go, you’re still stuck with them.  But you also can’t let them push you around–and sometimes, you need to point out to the world when someone is being an idiot, because one idiot saying idiot things to people that might believe him is more dangerous than one idiot with hurt feelings.

This is at the basis of my political beliefs, which is that government is fundamentally a system that is designed to inhibit personal liberty for the sake of group security.  It does this to a greater or lesser degree, and sometimes a greater or lesser degree of it is called for.  I think ideological approaches to government are stupid (why?  Because I have no real ideology); not every situation is the same–why would you always use the same response?

The other ethic is an existential one:

Life is meaning.

This is usually the answer that I have when some smarty-pants is all, “Oh, if you don’t have religion or believe in Jesus, then what’s the meaning of life?  What’s the point of existence if there’s nothing more to the world than the world?”

Well, life doesn’t need to have meaning, because it is meaning.  Existence doesn’t need to have a point because existence is the point.  There doesn’t, to my eye, need to be anything more to it than that.  I know that there are some folks that say things like faith are important, and that’s cool, and I know some guys who say that faith is the belief that everything is going to work out in the end, and okay.

But you know what?  Sometimes it doesn’t.  Sometimes, people just get hammered to shit for their whole lives, and it never gets any better, no matter how much faith they have.  And while pain, humiliation, poverty, and so forth are inherently unpleasant conditions, we have to accept that part of the problem is the expectation that there’s a way that things should be.  That we have a right to something, or that cosmic justice is going to work out in our favor, eventually, somehow, I don’t know.  But it doesn’t.  Karma is an extremely unreliable tool.

My favorite part of the New Testament is Matthew 26:39:

And he went a little farther, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt.

(This, by the way, Moff, is one of the reasons that I don’t think Jesus really understood himself as an actual divinity, but instead as someone who was required to fulfill a divine role.)

Here is Jesus, the Son of God, asking for mercy, praying to God that he doesn’t have to face some horrible shit.  And what is the answer that he gets?  Nothing.

My favorite part of the Old Testament is at the end of the Book of Job, when Job says, “What the fuck, God?  I was a good man!  Why you got to go and give me boils?”  And God responds, “Where were you when I invented the crocodile, motherfucker?”  (This is my own translation.)

God is not accountable to his Creation, in the same way that the universe is not accountable to you and me.  There is no right, there is no higher justice that comes to the deserving, and a good man can get boils on his ass and his daughters killed by a comet, and you know what?  That’s just how it goes sometimes.  I think a preoccupation with how things are going to be good later on is unhealthy; it’s not given to us to know the future, it’s given to us only that we do what we can, when we can.

I think it’s good to do good for the sake of doing good, but a mistake to worry about what it means, or what it signifies, or whether or not it will matter.

So, there you go: a long, self-involved explanation for why I get pissed off about stupid arguments, but never take internet philosophy brawls personally.

  1. ryan says:

    Good Points.

    I would really love to read your translation of the Old Testament. It sounds awesome!

  2. Moff says:

    I think we’re pretty much on the same page with the practical ramifications of Jesus being the incarnation of God, even if we might differ on the details. ’Cause I think a divinity trapped in a human body would look more or less the same as a human required to fulfill a divine role. (And some interested, vaguely related stuff on the whole “Eli, eli, lama sabacthani” bit here, btw.)

    Tangentially, the notion among some people (not that I think you’re perpetuating it) that God must not love us because He doesn’t solve all our problems (I guess that’s what’s called the Problem of Evil, yes?) drives me bonkers. As if a parent who protected their kids from everything (and we all know some who try, right?) could be called “loving” in any sort of genuine sense.

    I also think I agree with your two rules.

  3. threatqualitypress says:

    Well, the Problem of Evil is a tricky one–like, letting a kid ride a skateboard without a helmet, and letting him bonk his head once or twice in order to teach him the value of the helmet, that’s one thing. The consequences of this hands-off approach are generally small.

    But looking at some of this other stuff, I don’t know. I mean, a lot of the problems that human beings have are a direct result of cultural differentiation as a product of linguistic drift. That is, people identify themselves in tribal units because they speak different languages. That’s not just something that God could fix if he wanted to–that’s a problem that God actually caused when he saw that human beings were getting on too well.

    And there are other problems that I’m not sure the “God as serious parent” metaphor really covers effectively. Like–well, what the point of this whole things is. Remember that the point of being a parent is that your kids can eventually get along without you; that’s why you need them to learn how to handle all this stuff on your own. But religious tradition among Christians seems to indicate that with age you should have a closer, not more distant, relationship with God. Why exactly would God be trying to teach us to get along on our own if he’s omnipresent in our daily lives, will be throughout our lives, and we’re going to be spending eternity with him afterwards?

    Then think about what it’s like to have kids–sure you let them run around, maybe trip and fall, skateboard without a helmet, okay. But let’s say you saw your ten-year-old kid playing around with a corn-thresher–as a loving parent, would you look at him and say, “Well, better let him make his own mistakes?”

    And yet, no matter how grievous the consequences of humanity’s mistakes, God has never once directly intervened in order to prevent us from making them. (I guess you could argue that that’s what Jesus was, but that doesn’t seem to have curtailed any of the horrible things that we do to each other.)

    Now, maybe this is all one to God–after all, he knows that souls are immortal, and that basically all of them are going to end up in Heaven with him eventually, anyway, where it’s all extremely blissfully rad for eternity. So a brief flash of misery seems irrelevant in the face of Heaven–but if that’s true, then what’s the point of the misery in the first place?

    Is it a kind of education of souls? But then why do babies die sometimes shortly after birth? And not from parental neglect–sure that happens, but plenty of children die from a host of natural problems that have nothing to do with how human beings treat each other, and moreover have little impact on the regular functioning of human society, except that they sometimes kill babies (SIDS, for example–sociologically, we could probably get along fine without that).

    I don’t know. I’m not satisfied with it as an explanation, because it seems like a powerfully insufficient metaphor–comparing God to a parent only really makes sense if God and parents are afforded similar knowledge and powers. The position of God is infinitely more complex than the position of parent–it stands to reason that his relationship with humanity must be likewise more complex.

  4. Moff says:

    No, it’s not a perfect analogy, and as unsatisfactory as most possible answers to theological questions are. And obviously, the quantitative difference in scale is so immense as to be qualitative. But y’know, if like you say, life is meaning, then you’re not really letting your kids take some knocks so they can get along without you so much as because the point in and of itself is to take the knocks and learn to handle them.

    And I don’t buy into the notion that God actually does let us take all the knocks without help. I mean, in all His various forms, He makes it pretty clear that He’s there if we ask Him to help, and in my admittedly subjective experience, that is the case. And the problem with your point about His intervention is the Copy Editor’s Lament: There’s really no way for us to know about (and thus give credit for) things that have been fixed.

    It always comes back to that Chesterton line for me, about the church not being tried and found wanting, but just not being tried (to paraphrase). I think there are too few religious people who really try to live their faith, and I think even the people who do try fail plenty. And most of their successes, I suspect, go unnoticed. News is generally bad news, after all.

    And, y’know, Babel is just a metaphor for the destruction of Atlantis.

  5. threatqualitypress says:

    Well, the good thing about the “Life is Meaning” ethic is that I don’t need analogies to explain why things are, because it already precludes the possibility of an answer for “why.” The problem with the “God Is Parent” response to the Problem of Evil is that it does posit a why–it suggests that there is a reason for all of this evil, and a reason why God doesn’t solve it.

    God fixing problems and us not noticing is intriguing, yes, but violates one of the general tendencies I’ve noticed in how the world works: the fewer elements there are in your explanation, the more likely it is to be right. God as Unappreciated Copy Editor not only adds God into the explanation, but then adds a host of unnoticed and unnoticeable problems into the situation in order to justify adding God in in the first place. This seems like an inelegant solution.

    But, look, I always thought the idea of “God Being There For You” was a way of saying that your faith will help you psychologically cope with even the worst problems–you’re not really suggesting that God will truly intervene to make life actually, physically, measurably better for the faithful, are you? I’m only asking because it seems to open up a huge new can of worms, as it implies that having a shitty life isn’t just bad luck, but an actual failing of piety.

    As for Chesterton, I like him okay, but it’s not like he knew everything, or everybody. The church has failed a lot of people, a lot of times; it seems unfair to suggest that this was the fault of the people who needed it.

    I thought Atlantis was just a metaphor for Athenian imperialism?

  6. Moff says:

    Well, I’m suggesting that He’ll intervene to make life actually, physically, I suppose measurably better for everyone, occasionally; I don’t think it’s limited to the faithful. If anything, I just think faith is part of the way to tune yourself in and open yourself up to those moments. I’ve never really thought it was so much about us doing something for God as it was us getting closer to something essential in ourselves. And like I’ve said before, I don’t think it entails life always becoming “better” in a material sense. I don’t know how different it is, practically speaking, from Zen buddhism or Sufism or Stoicism or The Secret, but I’m not that worried about it.

    It could totally be a giant system of rationalization, I realize. It is adding more to the explanation (although at present, we lack a very full explanation, I’d say). But I think it’s too complex of a question to shut the door on, in spite of the obvious problems of finding an answer.

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