The Punk starts with James Cameron’s Avatar, which I guess I’m going to have to see, because even people who hate it and its message are using it as an anchor for all kinds of useful and interesting discussions, plus it’s supposed to be really pretty.
He pulls in an essay “by the new enfant terrible of the conservative elitist class, Ross Douthat“, which makes the point that
“Avatar” is Cameron’s long apologia for pantheism — a faith that equates God with Nature, and calls humanity into religious communion with the natural world.
and which concludes by “[framing] an existential crisis for anyone who’s paying attention”:
The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.
Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.
This is an agonized position, and if there’s no escape upward — or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it — a deeply tragic one.
Pantheism offers a different sort of solution: a downward exit, an abandonment of our tragic self-consciousness, a re-merger with the natural world our ancestors half-escaped millennia ago.
But except as dust and ashes, Nature cannot take us back.
Now, I am not a Christian. I am a militant skeptic. A friend of mine was shocked recently to learn that although my father is a priest, I haven’t even been baptized. (Why not? When I was born, my father was in a church that did not believe in infant baptism, and by the time I was old enough, I didn’t want to be. Why not? Flippant version: “Because I don’t believe in an invisible superhero from outer space who cares, intimately and personally, about my sex life.” Serious version: Because I’d have to stand up and take the Nicene Creed in public, and the Nicene Creed neatly summarizes all the magical crap I explicitly believe is not true. “We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.” Really? How the hell can you take that seriously?)
And given that, I’m missing about half of his crisis; I had it and dealt with it when I was in kindergarten, and no one, not even my father (who is a learned man, if not quite a scholar, and a pretty right guy) could answer my kindergarten questions about who made God, and what happens, really, when we die, and most of all, how do you know all that for sure?
Instead, I find myself approaching his crisis from the opposite side: I want to be baptized, I want to join in the Church, I want to take Communion from my father’s hand before he dies and make Confession and all the rest, and I can’t, because I’d have to lie to do it.
I’m looking for something to believe in, something to anchor me, and all I have at this point is scepticism, an unquenchable need to ask the next question and do my best to refute the answer.
I’m begging the Christians around me to come up with something better than the Nicene Fourth Century Crackpot Superstition that I can swear to as I am baptized and take Communion. Please. I’m dying here.
Gregory Bateson has some of the pieces, a vague outline of The Sacred, and a couple of handles: “The Pattern That Connects” and “A Necessary Unity”. He understood things in terms of feedback loops, and was most interested in systems controlled by feedback, particularly informational feedback, as opposed to those controlled by mere physics, chemistry, and thermodynamics. He talked about evolution and the mind, how both are driven by feedback, and how evolution gives rise to mindfulness, both in the large scale of biology and the small scale of the workings of your own brain. (I’m crudely summarizing some fairly subtle ideas; expounding on Bateson is far beyond the scope of my rambling here.)
The Anchoress is a regular read of mine, precisely because she’s the exemplar of people I know seeking the Numinous, and doing their best to live their lives accordingly. She, too, subscribes to a pack of nonsense, but somehow sees through it to the truth it shrouds about how we should live our lives with love and grace. Her view even makes sense of transubstantiation.
And today, Instapunk in his agony shines light on another small but crucial facet:
What is with this idiotic notion that Nature is good and Mankind is bad? Fact is, Nature is cruel, even demonstrably vicious, and Mankind is, uh, more kind than not. That’s why Mankind has prospered and proliferated. DUH. Consider this: Christianity is the biggest ever departure from Nature. Its central premise is that we all matter. Odd. Wrong? Perhaps. But absolutely right in human terms. It has led to the extension of human thought, lifespans, and a kind of beauty and accomplishment no other culture has ever dreamed of. No other kind of human philosophy has produced such sheer gorgeousness. Now we are being asked to regard ourselves as vile, a scientifically verifiable pollution on the face of the earth, something akin to the AIDS virus. The President of the United States subscribes to this view. Let me repeat that. The President of the United States subscribes to this view.
While I am struggling on matters of faith, patriotism, and survival. My response? Fuck him and the horse he rode in on. The Split does matter. Not just because I’m going to die, but because we all know we’re going to die and we all still care about what happens after Human religion is by definition the Split with Nature, the proof that we are better than lions, hyenas, wolves, and black mambas. Most of us live every day with the proof — the species that remade themselves just for the privilege of living with us and acquired a moral sense along the way — dogs.
There. “We all matter.” Not that we’re all equally qualified. Not that we’re all entitled to equal outcomes. Not that we’re all just as good, or just as bad, as everyone else. But in some sense, we all matter, for good or ill, even in the face of the awful scale of Time, The Universe, and Everything, even God Itself, whatever It is. And we should all strive, as hard as we can, to lift each other up and away from Nature’s savage muck, away from superstition, and towards the numinous, the sacred.
Even though we create it, not the other way around.
Heinlein said it, and he didn’t mean it as compliment or blessing: “Thou Art God”.
[Christianity] has led to the extension of human thought, lifespans, and a kind of beauty and accomplishment no other culture has ever dreamed of.
What, exactly, in the scriptures, led to this?
I’m reminded of how our slave-owning founders, such as Jefferson, managed to produce the greatest framework for liberty ever devised.