Sunday, November 18, 2012

Contemplating the Way It Is

Occasionally I meet someone who says something along the lines, “I believe everything happens for a reason,” and that’s it. When I hear this thought, it is usually voiced with a semi-serious tone and a sentimental linguistic mood. I want to ask that person, “What do you really mean?” Is it that you assent to the idea that when something good or bad happens, it happens with some design behind it, i.e., by a higher power (God)? Or is this only true sometimes? Perhaps you mean there is a rational way of contemplating everything that occurs in the world, whether it provides some transcendental meaning or not? Often a person will project this thought during a moment when they do not know what to say or how to say what they are uncomfortably feeling (anxiety), which makes the statement dubious at best. Perhaps they could take a lesson from Ludwig Wittgenstein’s final proposition in his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, “What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence.” (Silence suggests a number of things in terms of human functional : saying nothing because there is nothing to be said, contemplation, and listening to the other.)

The problem of having to say something when we really have no valid explanation except something that really has little meaning lies in the reality that the human intellect struggles to deal with a world filled with chaos and uncertainty. The Greeks had a system of gods to deal with this mix by submitting to the wild chaotic world beyond one’s own will and getting used to the idea that your rational plans will be knocked about by larger forces. The ecstatic part of this ancient religion led to throwing oneself into the chaos, by leaving your rationality at the shore while the wind and storms took you wherever. In other words, you transcend by letting go of what is human—rationality, pride, and planning. While this may seem foolish, the Greeks retained a high view of the universe which they read humanity into—ecstasy, pleasure, a mind, a divinity.

It does not take much imagination to see that there are many problems in life for which individuals and groups throw or spin off into some kind of sentimental thought pattern while often couching it under the pretext of “faith” or “belief.”  Faith” in its original Greek meaning has to do with deep commitment and trust that calls for intimate knowledge. While one may be unable to fully comprehend the depth of what is trusted, one continues to apply other virtues and thoughtfulness within one’s community in order to build a foundation and structure that can exist more fully. Furthermore, regarding serious matters that may have “reasons” behind their happenings and should be considered or at least acknowledged (or heard); one is incapable and should give due thoughtfulness (forethought or thoughtful planning), which without will lead to ignorance and even apathy.

Plato argued that “to speak well of the gods to men is far easier than to speak well of men to men.” Serious rationality by itself offers some self-sufficiency on a small scale with a high probability of setbacks and failure. Plato’s solution was both logical and transcendent. One does not use logic to overcome the chaos; rather, one uses logic because logic itself is beauty and is truth. Plato put forward the idea that contemplation of the way things really are is, in itself, a purifying process that can bring human beings into the only divinity there is.

The Te Tao-Ching, by Lao-tzu (63) provides wisdom for dealing with challenging matters and reframes the tension we all too often feel.

(It is the way of the Tao) to act without (thinking of) acting; to conduct affairs without (feeling the) trouble of them; to taste without discerning any flavour; to consider what is small as great, and a few as many; and to recompense injury with kindness.
(The master of it) anticipates things that are difficult while they are easy, and does things that would become great while they are small. All difficult things in the world are sure to arise from a previous state in which they were easy, and all great things from one in which they were small. Therefore the sage, while he never does what is great, is able on that account to accomplish the greatest things.
He who lightly promises is sure to keep but little faith; he who is continually thinking things easy is sure to find them difficult. Therefore the sage sees difficulty even in what seems easy and so never has any difficulties.
Jesus in the Christian tradition via the gospel narratives is portrayed as having assisted the religious society of his day by drawing out the radical Jewish meaning from long-standing, obsolete aphorisms that were missing the mark. One such example from the Gospel according to Matthew (5.43-4), “You have heard that it was said, 'You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you. . .”

And so, you have heard it said, “Everything happens for a reason.” But I say unto you, listen, be thoughtful, and acknowledge only what you learn regarding the way it is. You will be a more flourishing human being  and society for it.

Stafford in this poem highlights need to pay attention to one another; for if we are not careful, we may miss a subtlety (brushed off with some sentimental thought) that in the end , if not recognized and acknowledged, might lead to some kind of cruelty.

A Ritual To Read To Each Other
William Stafford
If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.
For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.
And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.
And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.
For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Plato, Critias (360 B.C.E), translated by Benjamin Jowett.
Jennifer Michael Hecht, Doubt, a History. NY: Harper Collins, 2003.
Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus.
Lao-tzu, The Tao-te Ching, translated by James Legge
Gospel according to Matthew (NRSV)
William Stafford, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other”

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Brief Musing from Qohelet - Tears verses Power: Morris Jastrow

Both Job and Koheleth, however, represent the reaction on those who had the courage to face the facts of existence against what had come to be the conventional religious view of a world in which as was assumed goodness and justice must be triumphant, because the supreme Ruler possesses these attributes. The Book of Job in its original form ends in a non liquet, in a practical admission that the problem is insoluble with a faint suggestion, however, as a crumb of comfort, that what may be hidden from us may nevertheless rest on a basis of divine equity. There may be a compensation for innocent suffering, but such a possibility is concealed behind a thick mist through which the human mind cannot penetrate. Koheleth says why try to solve the problem? It will be of no use, for arguments cannot change facts, and the solution, if one could be found, will not mitigate the injustice and suffering in the world. It does not ease Job's pain when suffering the tortures of the damned to be told that it is all a test even if it were true; and it would only increase his misery to become convinced that he must have committed some misdeed, which is certainly not true, for the point is that Job was "God fearing and removed from evil." By all means, believe in a just and merciful Providence if you can, says Koheleth, but be frank enough to recognize that you "cannot fathom the work of God from the beginning to the end" (iii. n). Do not delude yourself with high-sounding phrases that are empty of meaning. The jargon of the pious merely serves to close your eyes to the wrongs that are being done, and to shut your ears against hearing the pitiful cries of those who suffer for no good reason. Tears verses Power—such is the world. 
A Gentle Cynic, Morris Jastrow, Jr. J. B. Lippincott, 1919, 146-7