A challenge that I have faced in life is faith and belief; finding meaning and hope in a world that, while at times is beautiful, is also dark and likely destined for doom. Tolstoy asked a question that, I believe, echoes within the minds of all men (surely my own) “Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?” Beard wrote of Tolstoy; “Human mortality was for him, in large part, a philosophical dilemma.” The human condition has befuddled me in a philosophical way for sure, I struggled to find purpose, an explanation for the misery. The first Noble Truth in Buddhism is; “life is suffering”, a valid noble truth, but being a child of the West my conflicted mind echoed “God looked over all He had made, and He saw that it was very good” (Genesis 1:31, emphasis my own). Often filled with indecision, I could relate when I read Paul’s writing “I don't really understand myself, for I want to do what is right, but I don't do it. Instead, I do what I hate.” (Romans 7:15). There seems to be a reoccurring puzzle as to what is under our own control, the degree to which we are shaped by society, and as Menand wrote “contrary to the romanticism of intellectuals... nurture is no match for nature”. (Menand. 2002)
Apologist Ravi Zacharias has said “what makes sense in my heart must make sense in my mind”, regarding my search for faith and belief, this has long summed up how I feel. Science and faith are not at odds, but instead seeking the same truths. Classical scientists and philosophers assumed human nature, it is almost as if we are losing our way. While on a lifelong quest for truth and meaning, belief in a higher power did not come easily for me, I was in agreement with Kurt Vonnegut who remarked “Say what you will about the sweet miracle of unquestioning faith, I consider a capacity for it terrifying and absolutely vile.”
My family was “unchurched”, no services or religious instruction for me unless I took the initiative and walked down myself (occasionally visiting with the Methodists down the street beginning around age 8). Like Augustine I was not “a confident Christian from the cradle” while my father was not a pagan and my mother was baptized a Catholic, my Christianity too, was a long process of self-discovery. (Cole&Coffin. 2012. P.152) My Grandmother, Mahota Walker Salerno, in whose home I resided most of my life, was all about free-will when it came to relationship with God. Born at the height of the dust-bowl in the midst of the great depression, she spent her youth as a migrant farm worker picking cotton in the southwest. At an early age she witnessed people fall flat out on the floor at tent revivals writhing, spitting and mumbling incoherently for hours at a time, handling snakes to prove they had been “filled” with the spirit. These behaviors, Mahota said, did not appear to testify to the Holy Spirit – but instead “scared the bejesus” out of her and led her to stay away from any “church”. Mahota was raised a bible believing Christian, her parents teaching it was not what proceeded from your mouth but instead what fruits came from the work of your hand. “Feed those that need feedin’, love those that need lovin” is what her Father Benjamin Franklin Walker recommended as true “Christian” behavior. Ben was a member of the Choctaw tribe of Oklahoma and declared that his church was the woods and he went there far more often than Sundays. The bible was a part of their daily routine as a family; it was from this book that my Grandmother Mahota was taught to read and write before she went to Kindergarten. They were followers of Jesus Christ, but followers of organized religion they were not. Quiet in her faith, Mahota would teach you if you had ears to hear. It wasn't until I was a mother and began a study of the scriptures myself that I discovered the source of so much of what she shared in life, her words of wisdom. You had to choose to seek God for yourself; there was never a time I was told what to believe or what truth was. And seek I did, from the little girl who went down to Sunday school alone, to an agnostic adolescent - Jesus in my mind, became way too narrow of a path, there had to be a broader gate – so I began to look for a more profound and all-encompassing answer. In college, an aspiring militant feminist, I was drawn to Goddess worship and the New Age earth religions, the duality of God was very appealing to me. When I was married at age 19, it was in a Christian church (the same Methodists from down the road who had endured the odd little girl in their midst did so once again) but I rewrote the ceremony and insisted that when we recited the Lord’s Prayer we did not say “Our Father” but instead, “Our Creator”, as to not offend the divine feminine. I became a practicing Wiccan, dipped my toe into Druidism and even skimmed the satanic bible- just to see what all the fuss was about. Of all the world's systems of belief, Christianity happened to be the one I was most resistant to. I could possibly rationalize that this "Jesus" was an actual character of history - perhaps even a great teacher, but God on earth? This was a laughable thought. And then there was his church, doesn't the corruption of that establishment PROVE there is no God? Thus began my search, setting out with my own preconceived ideas - I found myself surprised at every turn. I began to deduce that I was worshiping creation- not the Creator, and yes maybe gods, but not THE God. Then, after spending a few years as an agnostic/semi-soft boiled atheist, I discovered that existence required far more faith and belief in mankind than I was ever going to be able to drum up. I don't just believe but I know, man is different from his fellow mammal - from the beasts of the field. We are filled with wonder, we are made in the image of our creator. We exist in a universe created FOR us, there is a designer - an architect. I hope to find myself like Plato’s Socrates, still arguing for the immortality of the soul as I face the very end. “The impure cannot attain the pure”, that we grasp the ideas (eternal forms) must mean we too are eternal, ideas matter!
The world of secular humanism held little appeal for me; the answer there said I was the same as an animal, the result of a series of a million accidents that yielded “life”. If God does not exist, from whom are we endowed certain inalienable rights? Nothing special about human beings, or even the magnificent creation itself - just primordial ooze, only a random collection of atoms with no greater purpose, a blank slate - to be written upon by those who would deem themselves Master. I have chosen to believe, to have faith there is something greater. Many would respond, isn't this world and life enough? Aren't you just being greedy, childish even? Silly and naive enough to believe in myth and fairytale, finding comfort in stories- tales designed by men solely for the purpose of providing just that. Perhaps, but thanks to freewill, each of us is entitled to our own opinion, and I would ask, what fruit does faith bear? Often it is faith that cares for the widow and the orphan, loves the unlovable and stands at the very gates of hell ringing a mission bell. Even if faith is a delusion for the weak-minded and afraid, and in the end death finds us only dust – by living a life of faith, what have we lost?
Social Darwinism made it old-fashioned and backwards for the Western world to believe that truth comes from the bible; the equality of humanity (as all are descended from Adam and Eve) is one of these truths. Instead, those who choose to believe in that text are essentially thought to be failing to come to terms with the great scientific thinking of the age. This advanced and civilized thinking instead teaches that human beings are soulless animals; Nazism, Imperialism , are not aberrations of history but instead examples of scientific thinking justifying the abhorrent actions of man. Take for example this poem by famous propagandist (and beloved Children’ author) Rudyard Kipling;
“Take up the White Man’s burden -
In patience to abide,
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple, An hundred times made plain,
To seek another’s profit
And work another’s gain”
(Cole&Coffin. 2012. P.542)
Just as we use religion to rationalize or condone acts of terror and injustice, so too do we use science. It seems as a species we are very good at justification of our own wrongdoing, and that very often it is selfish reasoning that leads the way.
Wanting to investigate whether Germans were particularly obedient (a common explanation for compliance with Hitler’s Final Solution) Psychologist Stanley Milgram’s experiments revealed the inevitable (and frightening) human (not only German) tendency to conform to the demands of authority, what we are capable of when we “just follow orders”;
“Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process. Moreover, even when the destructive effects of their work become patently clear, and they are asked to carry out actions incompatible with fundamental standards of morality, relatively few people have the resources needed to resist authority” (Milgram. 1974)
In my experience we as people (especially in this modern technological age) have a hard time seeing beyond or looking behind our own lifetimes, we are people of NOW, all about immediate gratification and "living in the moment". As a student of history, upon closer examination, it seems all we do is repeat it. There must be a reason that mankind has been telling the same "stories" for thousands of years, why common archetypes and heroes exist; the same insights that have been a part of every wisdom tradition since human civilization began - wise old Solomon said it best “What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun”. (Ecclesiastes 1:19) At times, it seems, our great civilized progress has only lead to arrogance- vanity and a furthering of a small minority. Are we really better today than 1000 or 200 or even, 10 years ago? While infanticide is no longer widely practiced as birth control, nor are humans commonly sacrificed in religious ritual - there exists more people in slavery today than at other time in human history (freetheslaves.net). We have not, with all of our advancements in the West, solved the crises of oppression, famine or war. We have just become more full of ourselves, pride goeth before the fall, the faster and further we “advance” - the more we are able to delude ourselves, that we no longer need God and can deny our own human nature.
When Howard Gardner asked Steven Pinker what was the most important idea of his book “The Blank Slate”, he responded “We can’t do without the theory of human nature, none of our fears of human nature are justified… we must bring intellectual life back in line with common sense”. (2002. Video.) According to Pinker, denial of human nature is based on four fears:
- Fear of inequality
- Fear of imperfectability
- Fear of determinism
- Fear of nihilism or meaninglessness
My conjecture is that all of these fears find their roots in PRIDE and thoughts only of SELF. In the 20th, and this century, Freud’s influence underlies so much of our self-understanding, reduced to a bundle of incoherent needs, passions and desires - our actions all supposedly caused and directed by these subconscious drives.
“A further important insight that set Freudian theory apart from alternative theories of upbringing was his contention that when a child misbehaved it could be for a reason the child itself did not comprehend” (Cleverley & Phillips. 1986. p. 71) Theories that place blame outside of ourselves always seem popular; we can blame disturbed emotional development on experiences of caregiving in early childhood, if a child has autism – it’s his mother’s fault. This is yet another example of the self-centered blame-driven ideology that we are surrounded by in our contemporary Western world;
“Mothers are often blamed for their children's problems. Bettlelheim said that autism was due to 'refrigerator mothers', a charge which tortured a generation of mothers of children with autism (Pollack, 1997). But there is no evidence that autism is caused by cold mothers.” (McDowell)
Pinker states emphatically “The romantic notion that all evil is a product of society has justified the release of dangerous psychopaths who promptly murdered innocent people. And the conviction that humanity could be reshaped by massive social engineering projects led to some of the greatest atrocities in history.” (2002. p.x-xi) the denial of human nature has far reaching implications. Whether we discuss; The Blank Slate , The Noble Savage, The Ghost in the Machine all present interesting points regarding the condition of man, but none offer a totally valid, real and complete answer - and, as Menand stated, “the sciences of human nature tend to validate the practices and preferences of whatever regime happens to be sponsoring them”.
Rousseau’s belief that “God makes all things good; man meddles with them and they become evil” (Cleverley & Phillips. 1986. P.34) may give credit to our Creator, but it corrupts His truth as revealed in the Holy Scriptures. God made all things for mankind, we were given free will, disobeyed and live now with the result; born with a sinful nature in to a fallen world. In Genesis 3 we are told why this conflict exists within us all, we are now like God, we have eaten from the tree of knowledge and must reap the consequences;
“And the Lord God said, “The man has now become like one of us, knowing good and evil. He must not be allowed to reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life and eat, and live forever.” So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken.” (Genesis 3:22&23)
St. Augustine examines why it seems at times we desire evil for its own sake, asking regarding his account of the lesson of the pear tree “what was it that I loved in that theft?”; he asserts that rebelling against the law or moral code places ourselves above God, this offers us a counterfeit of freedom that feels powerful and divine. (Augustine. Confessions. Book 2)
The Western world we exist in today is one of self-worship; from selfies, to self-help to making sure our children have enough self-confidence, we are a society obsessed with “self”.
To the contrary, the Judeo-Christian perspective (considered largely backward by the advanced thinkers and intellectuals of our age) requires, or at least asks of us, to live an unselfish life. The Ten Commandments outline characteristics of a person who is not jealous, does not covet and loves his neighbor as he does himself. Jesus issued this directive regarding love of self;
“My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).
For all of the acquired knowledge and advancements in the West, it all may be in vain, we may be losing sight of those things that are truly most important and we just may be those of whom Paul spoke, in his letter to the Romans;
“Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools” (Romans 1:22)
Augustine. Confessions, Book 2. From Website:
Beard, Mary. (2013, November 5) Facing Death with Tolstoy. The New Yorker. From website: http://www.newyorker.com/books/page-turner/facing-death-with-tolstoy
Cole, J., Coffin, J. (2012) Western Civilizations: Their History and Their Culture. Brief Third Edition. W.W. Norton & Company. NY, NY.
Cleverley, J., Phillips, D.C. (1986) Visions of Childhood: Influential Models from Locke to Spock. Teachers College Press. NY, NY.
Hebrew Bible & New Testament. From website: https://www.biblegateway.com/
Free the slaves. From website: https://www.freetheslaves.net/page.aspx?pid=301
McDowell, M. Autism Statistically Linked to Early Non-Maternal Child Care. From website: http://cogprints.org/3747/1/Autism-Statistical.html
Menand, L. (2002, November 25) What Comes Naturally. The New Yorker. From website: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2002/11/25/what-comes-naturally-2
Mercer, J. (2010, April 30) Child Myths. Whose fault is autism, a historical view. From website: https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/child-myths/201004/whose-fault-is-autism-historical-view-placing-blame
Milgram, Stanley (1974). "The Perils of Obedience". Harper's Magazine. Archived from the original on 2011-05-14. Abridged and adapted from Obedience to Authority
Pinker, S. (2002) The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature. Penguin Books. NY, NY.
Pinker, S., Gardner, H. 2002. Harvard Graduate School of Education Discussion video. From website: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PJPZK6Fl6-8