Friday, April 8, 2011

The Value of Nothing

When I was in my early 20s, I had a dream one night which was one of the most important experiences in my subconscious life to date.  You see, when I was a child, I had a very rich fantasy life which was fueled by gross dissatisfaction with or outright fear of my peers.  My fantasies would mainly revolve around being rescued from this life by Professor X or Gandalf or by suddenly falling heir to Scrooge McDuck's fortune and being whisked away to an exciting and adventurous place where being smart and different is an asset rather than a liability.  In my adolescent life, this tendency mutated into a sort of ham-fisted rebellious streak until finally settling, in my early 20s, into the borderline agoraphobic intellectual that you all know and love today.

The dream was about an anthropomorphic manifestation of a universal construct called The Timekeeper of Always.  I somehow made the acquaintance of that being and he showed me what goes on behind reality.  Reality pulled away like a curtain and I was able to observe what goes on behind everything, the reality in which this one is but a poor reflection of a reflection.  Then he thought better of it, replaced the curtain, wiped the memory of what was behind the curtain from my mind, and returned me to the world of consciousness.  I woke up unable to remember anything of what was behind the curtain, but able to remember the rest of the dream.  It was terrible.  Rational Paul knows that this was a manifestation of those same latent desires from childhood, likely poured through the filter of a time in my life when I exclusively read Philip K. Dick, Robert Anton Wilson, Clive Barker, and Neil Gaiman.  Still, I am able to tap into that sense of cosmic loss that I felt on waking and here, 12 year later, I am still able to remember the dream (the parts that were not wiped from my memory in the dream) with utter clarity.

Something else I can tap into at any given time is the constant Existential Hum.  It is as if I have, in the "soundtrack" of my mind, a tone of Todesangst which toggles volume at divers and sundry points, but which is ever present.  Sometimes it's pounding like a bass drum, sometimes it's so high pitched that only dogs can hear it.  I would like to be able to say, "Come what may, it is well with my soul.  The timing is all.  I have no fear of death."  But that would be dishonest.  I don't have that kind of peace.  Death sounds awful to me.  It also looks awful to me.

When I become aware of the brevity of this life, I panic.  When I think of the likelihood of death as a simple extinguishing of consciousness, I am terrified.  When I think that this is happening constantly everywhere on the planet and that, in fact, walking consciousnesses effect that outcome on other walking consciounesses, I am horrified.  When I then consider the vastness of the human mind against the great insignificance of the entire Earth, a speck in vast space, I am crippled.

I've noticed a trend in certain types of churches, generally the more accepting and inclusive ones, of becoming a sort of psychic Intensive Care Unit.  Unfortunately, wolves and foxes are attracted to places where the smell of blood is strongest.  I have often remarked that I feel like an alien in my own religion and in the past year that seems to be transforming me into a Deconstructed Christian.  As much as I like to think of myself as one of God's little snowflakes, special and peculiar in my precious little experiences, I think I can see that this turn of events has emerged from specific external stimuli.  I know that I'm not the only modern (or, indeed, historical) person going through a similar long, dark night.  I know that this is a trend emerging in those whose doberman grip on their religion is keeping them attached to the edge of the cliff just as a florist district emerges in a major metropolitan area without any city planning.

In spite of the truth in Marx's assessment, I do not think that the primary function of a properly applied religious path is as an opiate.  However, I reject automatic deference to orthodoxy.  I have no interest in impressing my peers or dead white guys with my alignment with them on the issues.  I have no interest in impressing others with my religion.  My religion is simply my relationship with God and what that means to my behavior in this world.  I want to fellowship with other believers and have a free exchange of ideas.  I want to love my fellow human and honor my God in my behavior.  I do not care if a guy with a book published or sermons broadcast on the radio agrees with me on a point of doctrine that I've come to believe.  Having deconstructed my spiritual walk in the past year I find that I cannot reject the Gospel.  The most junior of analysts will probably make short work of reconciling this paragraph with the first two.

Let's take the afterlife, for example.  Popular Christian versions of the afterlife tend a little too close for my comfort to what I call "action figure religion."  As in there are places behind the curtain of reality called Heaven and Hell where people go and there are different places and beings.  Golden roads and pearly gates in front of which St. Peter stands behind a podium with a large book and so forth.  You could make a diorama of these places.  That sort of thing.

The Annihilationist view strikes me as more in line with an Old Testament understanding of the afterlife as well as being more in line with observable reality as I have experienced it.  The ignominy suffered by Sodom and Gomorrah lay in their destruction, their snuffing out of existence.  The hope and comfort of the Gospel is in the escape from the condition of life, being under the thumb of death, with the possibility of reconciliation with God and eternal life with same.  We are unable to restore what was broken.  We are all freeloaders at the Divine Feast and it required an act on the part of the divine to even let us in the room, much less give us access to free refills.

 I do think that one must needs retain an agnosticism over the afterlife as we do not have a complete set of stats.  The ancient Hebrews as well as the ancient Greeks were eyes deep in metaphor.  When I say "O, my love is like a red, red rose, that is newly sprung in June" I am not meaning to suggest that Laurie is of a burgundy complexion and that her face literally looks like a collection of petals.  It is entirely acceptable in language to employ devises to express a deeper meaning or a meaning not so easily expressed by the conventional employment of vocabulary.  Poetry exists to express those things which can only be expressed through poetry.

I have mentioned before that I don't buy the version of the Genesis creation account put forth by so many Christians that it is meant to be read as though it were a history textbook and that anyone who says otherwise is speaking heresy (and, therefore, going to Hell.)  The evidence seems to point fairly conclusively to the fact that the planet is upwards of 4 billion years old, which suggests to me that metaphor was being worked with in the writings of a member of an ancient civilization, one who was obviously and like all of us fettered by their space-time understanding of the universe, meant to identify God as creator and thereby set the stage for illustrating humankind's relationship to that deity.  Clinging tenaciously to the seven days in spite of all evidence to the contrary not only undermines the credibility of our religion to the eyes of the world, but more importantly, it misses the point.  Likewise, as I've said before, I don't think we know or can know exactly how the end of human existence will play out either from the data science has to offer or from eschatological scriptural passages.  Once again, I don't think the point of those passages was for us to make charts.  I think they were meant to point toward what a Christian ought to focus on and how they ought to behave.

The trend toward churches being ICU wards for the psyche is, I think, entirely appropriate.  Existence is extremely harsh and difficult to deal with.  Humans treat one another in abysmal ways.  God, in my experience and in the experience of so many others I've talked with, so often appears silent to us.  This agnosticism of the faithful, the fact that there is so much we do not and cannot know, is the major theme of the book of Job.  I would point out that Job is most likely the oldest book of the Bible.  So, when it came time for humankind to have divine revelation, that was the first message delivered.

The other night I was completely shaken by a line from a film Laurie and I were watching.  It was the film adaptation of the graphic novel The Watchmen and, at one point, the Rorschach character says to his prison psychiatrist in reference to his vigilante dealing with a child murderer "You see, Doctor, God didn't kill that little girl. Fate didn't butcher her and destiny didn't feed her to those dogs. If God saw what any of us did that night he didn't seem to mind. From then on I knew... God doesn't make the world this way. We do."

So often I wonder why God seems to be okay with so many things that go on.  I also think so often about how this world can be whatever we make of it... and this is what we've chosen to make of it.  What does that say about humankind?  And, you see, this is part of why the need for Christ seems entirely plausible to me.  However, I don't think the belief leaving me waiting for the Deus Ex Machina to swoop down at the end of the play and save "the good guys" is the appropriate reaction to that information.  I don't think religion is the key to isolating one's self from people one dislikes, disagrees with, or simply fears out of extrinsic differences.  I find myself more in step with the axiom of the entirely pagan Marcus Aurelius who wrote:
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.” 
I walk around every day with the absurdity of existence strapped to my forehead, forever in my field of vision.  I understand the traditionally Freudian analysis of my alienation and sense of loss over the forgotten dreamtime glimpse behind the curtain.  I also know that I my brain might prefer hysterical misery to common unhappiness.  I say all of these things, but also still hold to the Gospel.  I still am a Christian and, I think, probably more earnest of one than I've ever been.  Certainly more than when I had all of the answers neatly arranged on a silver platter.  I think congregations would do well to be less surprised to find the dead and the wounded in the pews next to them and remember that they serve the Great Physician.

P.S. It seems that these "talking cure" posts about religion are turning into a regular addition to my blog.  Apologies to the hypothetical people who come to my blog for writing about literature.  I am finding this practice therapeutic.  I also hope that my healing path may occasion some comfort to other hypothetical people out there.

1 comment:

  1. I think this article is well written and I understand this journey you're describing.