Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Phoenix Effect: Joyous Wisdom

"The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom..." -- Psalm 111:10
"To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom." -- Bertrand Russell

Without death, there is no resurrection. If I did not die first, I could not be reborn.

Have you ever noticed how dieters always, and I do mean always, gain back the weight that they lose? Because they saw their activity as a diet -- in  the contemporary, common sense of the word, a temporary shift in eating habits, they failed to address the underlying issue, which is a poor understanding or willingness to eat the foods that they should be eating. To lose over 100 lbs. I needed to destroy my current belief system so that another could grow in its place. At one time, I believed that there was nothing wrong with eating Chinese take-out so long as I got the brown rice instead of white, or that eating Popeye's was OK if I only did it once a day. Walking away from those beliefs permanently led to lasting change. I will never go back.

But my own personal transformation was about so, so much more than the body. What use are a broad back and washboard abs if one still lives as a coward? And a coward I was, trapped in a prison of my own construction. Shackled by safety and enclosed by duty, I lived in hatred of my own life. I could not continue this way. I would end this way of life or I would end this life, this you all know already.

But I could not stop running into the problem of my faith. How should a Christian, one who professes allegiance to the God found in Scripture, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God whose Son was incarnated as the root of Jesse and the descendant of David, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world, how should one such follower live?

I had two views. On the one hand, I held the view of humility so often practiced in Christendom. Modesty, mincing meekness-- these qualities evoked a visceral loathing.  Pride, should that not be the right of the capable? Should the strong be ashamed of their strength? Throughout Scripture, as I run through its vastness in my mind's eye, I see only lowness praised. Praise for putting others above yourself, for humility, for meekness -- kenosis, the emptying of the self. Exacerbated by Christian teaching -- are you following your will or God's will? You have a plan but God has a better one. Abdicate rule over your life, let God make the decisions for you. How can you, being finite and fallible, ever hope to make better choices for yourself than God whose weakness is greater than your strength? Mortals should not rise above their station. Recognize the unfathomable chasm that separates you from the divine and tremble in fear!

But on the other hand, Abraham and Jacob both wrestled with God. Moses as well. And were these men not highly regarded? What did this mean? "Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the man who takes refuge in him." Is this truly an invitation to know?

But I can't help remembering Bertrand Russell who once said that the Gospels never praise intelligence. The Beatitudes prize the poor in spirit, mourners, the meek but not those with ability. Not the strength of the laborer, the mind of the inventor, the will of the one who works diligently at perfecting his craft, these are never praised. These people are the ones whose work can alleviate much in the world. A farmer who breeds a new grain that resists drought and hardship can prevent hunger for a nation, but this work is never acknowledged. In the millennia that have passed since the closing of the canon, men have covered the globe, touched the heavens and the abyss, glimpsed the beginning of the universe, conceived of its end, and yoked the atom to do our bidding. And the majority of that progress has come in the period where men stopped waiting for miracles to appear causelessly and worked to make them occur at will. This cannot be argued as anything but the result of liberating humanity from superstition.

Yet, despite all this I do not buy the line that men have killed God. It would take either a poor definition of God or an exaggerated view of what it is exactly that humanity has accomplished in light of what it is possible to accomplish. To relegate God to a psychic security blanket useful for old world grandmothers is an absurd premise. Not psychology nor biology, not physics, chemistry or astrophysics, none of the disciplines have anything that can deny the existence of God or make the possibility of his existence an inherently untenable position. Spit in the face of those who say otherwise.

In my heart, in my honest heart, I would like to believe that God loves the brave, that he rewards those who have both contempt for the opinion of the herd who seek safety in numbers and the big, brass balls to bet their lives on their beliefs. I would like to believe that Abraham, Jacob, Moses, the centurion praised by Jesus, that these people were diving onto the Toruk, the biggest, meanest predator of the sky who could only be surprised from above.

Sapere Aude! Dare to know! Dare to discover! Dare to ask the question that makes you a heretic! Buck convention, risk your neck and everything that goes with it to know! Sin boldly! Like Martin Luther said, go and sin boldly knowing that God's grace reaches further than your sin can stretch. Beliefs should they not match reality? And if they do, then will they not withstand our interrogation? And if they do not, should we not discard them? It does not matter if the world terrifies us afterwards. If God does not exist then he never did and thousands have lived and found joy and died happy without him. Can you open your mouth to say that? If He does, then do you understand just what that means? It means your life must change and change irrevocably. Live your life with that certain knowledge, but do not believe simply because it is more comfortable to believe -- because it is easier to believe. God help you, do not believe simply because, in your estimation, it requires less of you.

I have had only 1 or 2 discussions with atheists where they did not claim, directly or indirectly, that my belief in God was because of how it made me feel. It often makes me feel very angry and very violent. I often feel that because of my belief in God, people like Benny Hinn should be punched in the neck and Creflo Dollar should be kicked in the teeth -- preferably with my fist and my boot. My belief in God makes me depressed that there are Bible-belt preachers who believe that God created football, fried chicken and free-market principles in that order, and that these who I must call brother also put together the picture of Jesus holding a baby raptor un-ironically. My relationship with God does not provide me with the warm fuzzies that they think it does. Believing in God or not believing in God, it would be absurd to say that either one makes anything... easier. It does not even make going to church easier. What other burden could it possibly alleviate, if we apply our rational mind to the question?

So in the aufhebung, the sublation or synthesis of the two quotes that I began this entry with comes to a head in the decision of the Jews who translated the Hebrew Testament into the Septuagint. They consciously made a decision to use the word 'phobos' or 'terror,' in lieu of the word for 'awe.' If we understood it with a larger emphasis on the awe perhaps they would not seem so diametrically opposed. Volcanoes inspire awe and terror as few other phenomena can. If we overcome the terror of being destroyed by molten rock we can, through their expellate, divine secrets hidden at the core of the earth. The discovery that volcanic soil is perhaps the most fertile soil in all the earth. Should that not engender more awe? But would that awe have been possible without conquering a fear of volcanoes?

Dare to know.

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