The Ayaan Hirsi Ali Monument at Brandeis

My friend Moleman has posted (mistermoleman.com) an article about the brave Somali feminist freedom fighter snubbed by the cowardly liberals of Brandeis.

It’s worth a look. Moleman is proposing that a monument to Ms. Hirsi Ali be constructed near Brandeis. Good idea.

“Blind, pitiless indifference”

As I have written below, I have spent many years trying to find God.  I have found much Judeo-Christian theology coherent, consistent with reality, and therefore highly plausible.

But I still cannot convince myself that the other coherent, consistent worldview, atheistic materialism, is not also plausible.

Many authors have helped me along; I will list and discuss them sometime.  But nothing so far has been quite so compelling as this quote from atheist guru Richard Dawkins:

“The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.”

This chilling statement, offered in support of Dawkins’ atheism, is from his book Rivers of Eden, which I found quoted in Francis Collins’ The Language of God.  (I recommend Collins’ book highly.  He was the director of the Human Genome Project as well as a Christian.)

I expect to be contemplating this for a long time.

LUCRETIUS – The Consistent Atheist

I have just read a book that has achieved a rather impressive audience recently: The Swerve, by Harvard Professor of Humanities Stephen Greenblatt.  Accurately subtitled “How the World Became Modern”, it is a look at the re-discovery and modern embrace of Roman Epicurean philosopher-poet Lucretius and his epic work On the Nature of Things (De Rerum Natura).

Little is known of Lucretius’ life. One historian writes that “Lucretius was probably a member of the aristocratic gens Lucretia, and his work shows an intimate knowledge of the luxurious lifestyle in Rome. Lucretius’s love of the countryside invites speculation that he inhabited family-owned rural estates, as did many wealthy Roman families, and he was certainly expensively educated with mastery of Latin, Greek, literature, and philosophy.”

In chapter 8, Greenblatt  summarizes Lucretius:

Everything is made of invisible particles, eternal, infinite in number but limited in shape and size, all in motion in an infinite void.  The universe has no creator or designer.

Everything comes into being as a result of a swerve [i.e. random motion]; the swerve is the source of free will.

Nature ceaselessly experiments. The universe was not created for or about humans; humans are not unique. Human society began not in a Golden Age of tranquility and plenty, but in a primitive battle for survival.

The soul dies; there is no afterlife; death is nothing to us.

All organized religions are superstitious delusions, and invariably cruel.

The highest goal of human life is the enhancement of pleasure and the reduction of pain.

The greatest obstacle to pleasure is not pain; it is delusion.

Understanding the nature of things generates deep wonder.

HONEST ATHEISM

Greenblatt’s very readable summary got me to thinking.  Epicureanism is the only honest and logically consistent answer for an atheist asking how to live life.  Enjoy yourself.  Maximize pleasure. Minimize pain. Do not worry about any further meaning of life.

Every other non-religious answer is an effort to invent meaning.  But invented meaning is artificial and inherently meaningless.  I may decide to spend my life comforting the afflicted or collecting stamps.  If they both give me pleasure and cause me no pain, they are effectively equal.  And if I decide that sadism and brutality are my pleasures, my neighbors will simply have to watch out.

This is so because any morality (that goes beyond “enjoy yourself”) must be based on some form of Natural Law; that is, an innate human understanding that I and others inherently recognize certain things as right and others as wrong.

But Natural Law is fundamentally incompatible with atheism. If, as Lucretius thought, we – our bodies, our souls, and everything we perceive around us – is just atoms, then right and wrong, being immaterial, have no objective reality.

The other alternative for atheists is ideology:  faith in a purely human path to human perfection (or at least improvement).  But all ideologies (gnostic political faiths, as Voegelin put it) are dead ends, inevitably shattering on the rocks of reality in history.

Marxism’s inability either to produce or distribute goods (the economics which are at the core of Marxism’s world view), or to allow freedom, inevitably dooms its regimes.  Only its political embrace of envy and hatred as motivation ultimately survives.

And now we face the positivist reign of social science. It, too, is a dead end, effective only at the destruction of human institutions built on the classical and Christian understanding of Man.

Atheists, if they are truly honest and self-aware, must learn to live with the Epicurean creed.  Fortunately, it can be a very pleasant lifestyle – if you have the money and security to live it.  It is no creed for those struggling with the difficulties of a hard life.

CONCLUSION

Greenblatt ends by quoting Jefferson:

“On the basis of sensation, of matter and motion, we may erect the fabric of all the certainties we can have or need.”

Greenblatt adds:

These are the sentiments that Lucretius had most hoped to instill in his readers.  ‘I am,’ Jefferson wrote to a correspondent who wanted to know his philosophy of life, ‘an Epicurean.’

He was also a slaveowner, who built his enjoyable plantation lifestyle on the coerced, unpaid labor of countless nameless fellow human beings routinely whipped into submission by his overseers.  He believed that the elites should be above superstitious religion while the laboring masses should be guided by its rules.

So in many respects, indeed, he was as Epicurean as Lucretius himself.

The Death Throes of Western Civilization, Part 97

If you are concerned about the dreadful direction taken by the modern university liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences, I urge your consideration of an excellent article, “The Humanities and Us”, by Heather Mac Donald in City Journal.

She begins with the UCLA English faculty’s recent purge of any requirements for the study (or even reading) of Shakespeare, Chaucer, Milton, or any other classics.

The UCLA coup represents the characteristic academic traits of our time: narcissism, an obsession with victimhood, and a relentless determination to reduce the stunning complexity of the past to the shallow categories of identity and class politics. Sitting atop an entire civilization of aesthetic wonders, the contemporary academic wants only to study oppression, preferably his own, defined reductively according to gonads and melanin.

She deftly punctures the arrogant presumption of academic elites:

Course catalogs today babble monotonously of group identity. UCLA’s undergraduates can take courses in Women of Color in the U.S.; Women and Gender in the Caribbean; Chicana Feminism; Studies in Queer Literatures and Cultures; and Feminist and Queer Theory.

Today’s professoriate claims to be interested in “difference,” or, to use an even more up-to-date term, “alterity.” But this is a fraud. The contemporary academic seeks only to confirm his own worldview and the political imperatives of the moment in whatever he studies. The 2014 Modern Language Association conference, for example, the annual gathering of America’s literature (not social work) faculty, will address “embodiment, poverty, climate, activism, reparation, and the condition of being unequally governed . . . to expose key sites of vulnerability and assess possibilities for change.”

Maradiaga

I referred recently to the difficulty of fully uprooting the weed of anti-Semitism from the Catholic Church, despite the heroic efforts of modern popes (Pius XII, John XXIII, Paul VI, John Paul I, and Benedict XVI).

Consider Cardinal Oscar Andres Rodriguez Maradiaga of Honduras: papabile, (considered possible pope material), indeed a leading contender as John Paul II’s successor, and one of eight cardinals chosen by the current pope to reform the church.

I described him earlier as a Liberation (i.e. Marxist) Theologian.  Let me demonstrate, from his speech on October 25 (read it all here):

He rails against “the neoliberal dictatorships that rule democracies” and advises that “to change the system, it would be necessary to destroy the power of the new feudal lords.Continue reading

Progress Report on the Search for Faith

[Written November 11, 2013]

Still searching.

The best result so far is that I can accept the Thomist logic of a plausible God.  But I cannot make the leap from this Philosopher’s God to a loving, caring, father God; and only such a God can offer Hope for what I love. (see previous posting)

The Catholic Church attracts me, calls to me.  Its commitment to Faith and Reason is essential: I cannot believe in a God who makes no sense.  This Thomist thought is one of the Catholics’ greatest contributions to humanity.  (Not to mention other gifts such as clarified morality, organized charity, and the sanctity of marriage.)

But sometimes the church seems to know too much.  Too much confident Dogma where it seems only Trust can serve.  Too much certainty regarding details of God’s thinking.

On this too-great certainty the Church has constructed a demand for trust in its own thinking; and the Church has too often been too wrong.  It has been the fountainhead of anti-Semitism.  It has massively and brutally inquired into individual souls.  It has criminalized heresy and apostasy.

To its credit, the modern Church has purged itself of these errors (sins).  This has been late in coming and grudgingly accepted, but it has happened.  The heroic efforts of the modern popes (from Pius XII to Benedict XVI) deserve honor.

I cannot oppose myself to the Catholic Church of today.  Indeed, the Church today stands as the leading champion in defense of almost all that I hold dear and that is now under such attack.  Family, Life, Truth.

So I find myself standing with the Church…but apart from it. Continue reading

Hope for the Hopeless, O, Abide With Me

News today from the Mideast – all bad.  The Israeli-Palestinian “peace talks” drag on, with the US Secretary of State publicly blaming Israel for the lack of success.  In Geneva the US is on the verge of giving Iran the kind of deal the Mullahs want; in response, the Saudis are ready to buy their own nukes from Pakistan.  It will take a miracle to prevent a truly horrible all-out war in the region within a year. (My friend Mr. Hans Moleman has an insightful take on all this at his site mistermoleman.com.)

Back home, the trend towards undermining of the family continues at a rapid and yet accelerating pace.

Meanwhile, I continue my lonely search for Faith. And I sometimes wonder why.  What is so imperative about Faith?

I could, like many good people I know, put the Big Questions aside. Without Faith I could live a relatively moral, or at least decent, life, and when the time comes die a bravely accepting death.  It mightn’t be too bad.   I have lived an extremely easy life; with luck I could just continue on until it ends.

But without Faith there is no Hope.  And that I cannot do without.

As a young man, I saw the world as do most young men fresh out of (liberal arts) college: a cesspool of suffering and misery, caused by greed and folly, and just waiting for some brave, bright young man like me to set all things right.

The course of my adult life was one of gradual discovery (re-discovery, some might say) that there was much to love and value in this world.  The beauty of art and music, as humans re-capitulate the wonders of nature. The courage shown throughout history by those fighting (what they believed was) the good fight. The endless search to find the truth about ourselves and our world.   In a word, the great culture we have been blessed to inherit, and graced with the opportunity to hand forward to the future.   (In a word, I became conservative.)

But all this appreciation brings with it fear – the fear that every parent feels when gazing into his child’s future.  Can it possibly be safe, in such a dangerous world?

What if everything exists by accident, constructed on nothing, the result of an inexplicable chance pinpoint explosion called the Big Bang?  If we are accidental, then all we have done and built is doomed, if only by the force of Entropy.  We see these forces of entropic doom all around us every day, and we keep our sanity only by extreme mental exercises.

Some place their hope in mankind and science as the forces that will save us.  This is a fool’s hope, available only to those who haven’t looked into it too deeply.

Some avert their eyes and seek constant distractions to avoid thinking about it.  This works well until it doesn’t.

And some find Hope in their Faith in a loving God who cares about us and has a plan for us.

I have tried the first two, and they no longer work for me.  So I keep knocking on Door Number Three.

I still don’t know if God exists. But I know that without God, there is no Hope.

And I don’t think I can live without Hope.

What If God Is NOT Omnipotent?

Much thinking (and prayer) goes into the matter of Theodicy: Why does God allow suffering of the innocent?  Great minds have been working on this for a long time, and I have nothing to add to this debate.

But I find myself wondering otherwise.  What if God cannot stop accidents of nature (disease, flood, etc.) from hurting the innocent? And what if He cannot stop me from hurting others?

In giving me Free Will, He has certainly given me the ability to choose to hurt others.  So it seems reasonable that He cannot stop others from being hurt by me without robbing  my choices of their reality and their results.

And perhaps, in creating a rational world of cause and effect, He has also set in motion physical events that He cannot prevent without making His world irrational. 

The Bible shows God consistently acting out of love for us.  When we seem to suffer unjustly (as does Job), then God wants us to accept that it is part of His higher reason, His divine wisdom.  We are to accept and trust in His divine wisdom, even though it be incomprehensibly beyond our own human reason  We are to accept and trust.

Islam simplifies the matter somewhat. God (Allah) is pure will.  Our only choice is submission (Islam). Even seeking o understand His will is presumption and blasphemy.

Acceptance. Trust. Submission.  God’s divine wisdom.  The will of Allah. 

Is there really any difference?

But what if God is not omnipotent?  What if He made us as we are, and the world as it is, and he must let us, and it, play out as our choices, and nature’s cause and effect, play themselves out?

Clearly, as regards us and our choices of good and evil, He who created us must care which we choose.  If we choose to hurt others, He must feel pain – for the suffering of our victims, and also for our own failure to see and choose the right path.

Certainly, the God of the Prophets is one who suffers greatly, in both sorrow and  anger, when His chosen people choose badly.  (Abraham Heschel wrote beautifully about this in The Prophets.)  This feeling, indecisive god seems so human, and so far from the unchanging, eternal first cause of the philosophers, that one wonders if they are even related.

Could God be all-powerful in creation, but an emotional basket-case in dealing with his self-determining creatures?  Could He be like a parent of a willful child?  Full of good advice but unable to stop His child from making its own mistakes?  And in the end, having only His perfect love to offer?

Predestination: If True, Why Try?

Of all elements of Christian belief, predestination is perhaps the least acceptable to me.

For one thing, it undermines the strength of one of the great realisms of biblical faith: free will.

If predestination is true, then why bother resisting temptation, or seeking God, or … anything?  If God has ordained my success or failure at finding Him, at being saved, then I am Home Free (or the opposite).  And my Free Will, which I now struggle to direct in the right way, is all for nought.  It is an illusion.

Predestination seems to me as foolish and hopeless as the atheist philosopher’s materialist determinism.

I am undoubtedly missing something here.  But for me, the relevant question is this:  Is Predestination a necessary belief?

 

Visiting the Valley

Recently I have spent some time volunteering at our hospital’s cancer treatment center, where folks come as out-patients  to receive their regular chemo-therapy.  The patients and nurses are grateful, and we seem to make things a little easier. We help with ordering and serving lunch, fetching drinks, blankets, pillows, and things like that; what would be orderly work in the wards.

Most of the volunteers are themselves cancer survivors.  I am not.  And I got to thinking about the significance of that reality.

My wife is a cancer survivor – a very successful one.  Twenty-eight years since her cancer, with no recurrence!  But I know the fear of it never entirely leaves her.  Her annual screening is always a time of some anxiety, for me as well as for her (though she hides hers well).

While working at the center, I had a thought: “Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…” The 23rd Psalm. And I understood it, in a way I never had before.  Every patient in there was walking through the valley of the shadow of death.  And the fortunate ones, the survivors like my wife, never entirely leave the valley.  They just make it to the brighter side of the valley.  But they never entirely leave the shadow behind them.

Of course, the rest of us are just as mortal; we all live with the daily possibility of death being around the next corner.  Car accidents, heart attacks, whatever – the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.  But we don’t think about it.  The shadow of our mortality does not block our sun.

But cancer is different.  No doctor will ever tell you that they got all the cancer cells.  You know there may be some in there, lying in wait for you.  You know their name.

I suppose heart attack and stroke survivors may be in a similar situation.  The chance of recurrence of those seems never to go away either.  Maybe they dwell in the valley too.

What is remarkable to me is how well most cancer survivors deal with the shadow.  Judging by the ones I know, they may be the least depressed people around. This is courage, no doubt, but also something else.

The awareness of the near presence of death has often been regarded as a morally salutary thing.  “Memento mori” (“remember death”), the Romans were told in their moments of greatest triumph.  Yet I think no one really does that except those dwelling in the valley of its shadow.  I know my wife cherishes every birthday as a gift, a gift of time, of life.   I try to emulate her attitude.  She is a constant example to me, of the courage to live life to its fullest.

When I volunteer at the center, I am visiting the valley. I find the valley-dwellers to be for the most part surprisingly cheerful, yet never frivolous.  They are serious about life, but never somber.

And when I sit at a bedside vigil for a dying patient, I watch them exiting the far end of the valley. I bid them farewell.

This volunteering is an invaluable gift to me, a memento mori as well as a memento vivere: “remember to live”.

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