Friday, April 17, 2015

Our Father Who Art in Heaven

When the psalmist says that God is on high, this is not a sense to which space travel is relevant. It has more in common with the sense in which we speak of high spirits. But this does not mean that space travel cannot come between us and the language of the psalmist. It can do so by making us think that the use of ‘high’ in space travel is the only intelligible use. But it never did make sense to ask of the God who is said to be on high, “How high?” 
—D. Z. Phillips, Philosophy’s Cool Place (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1999), p. 165.
This is a kernel of profound truth sheathed in a bad argument. I will explain what I think is right about it first.

If an educated, honest person is going to believe in God, he cannot possibly believe that he is in the sky. That’s elementary. We now know, and have known for hundreds of years, that if you go up past the atmosphere, all you’ll find is space, and then some more space and then some more, dotted here and there by a lump of rock or gas. You won’t find a single angel: neither a baroque fat baby, nor a Renaissance handsome warrior, nor one of the holy, terrifying creatures of the ancient Near East. Even the ocean is less frighteningly empty. The throne of God is not an astronomical object: even the most convinced Evangelical does not think so.

Anyone? Anyone...?
This means, for one, that a religious person cannot take anything in the Bible literally that refers to heaven. Take, for example, Deut. 33:26: There is none like unto the God of Jeshurun, who rideth upon the heaven in thy help, and in his excellency on the sky. As any Hebrew-school teacher will explain, this has nothing to do with outer space. Instead, we’re supposed to take it as a metaphorical expression of God’s spiritual loftiness. Or: when Christ rose to heaven to sit at the right hand of the father, it’s not like his soul and body simply rose up like smoke. A modern person has to take it some other way. Perhaps heaven is a non-physical world which Christ reached by crossing a mystical boundary. Or we can treat it even more symbolically. Simone Weil, or someone I can’t remember, said that he “rose up” when he got put up on the cross—that the crucifixion was the elevation of suffering to eternal concern. To anyone who takes religion seriously, this seems like an obvious point. It is crucial to the distinction between religion and superstition. So Phillips is right to point out that “how high?” is a senseless question. Talk of heaven in educated religious discourse has nothing to do with the sky.

This is not, of course, to say that the sky does not figure highly in modern religious symbolism. People in their right minds still have religious experiences when, for example, they look at a burning sunset. (Case in point.) I myself have seen God in the stars over the desert. And we do still read those Biblical verses with a special thrill, perhaps because we associate them with the lofty vault that we see every day. But even so, the physical sky appears to the religious as only an expression of God’s creation: it is not his literal dwelling place.

(Then again: There’s a better home awaitin’ in the sky, Lord, in the sky.)




So far so good. The problem is that Phillips insists, in his own italics, that it never made sense to think of God as literally living in the sky. As an empirical historical matter, that simply isn’t true. In fact, for the vast majority of human history, God was really up there, separated from us by a distance that could in principle be measured.

Take the easiest example: sun-worship. The Egyptians, together with the Aztecs and countless other peoples the world over, literally believed that the sun was a god. What would Phillips have said to Akhenaton, the pharaoh who established a monotheistic cult of the sun? That he was conceptually confused? To Akhenaton’s eye, Aton—the living disc of the sun—was simply there, and we could see and feel him on a daily basis. Needless to say the same goes for the pre-Socratic Greeks, who had not yet learned to scoff at the story that Helios drives the sun on his chariot.

The Old Testament, too, imagines God as literally living above the clouds. Take the story of the Tower of Babel, for instance, in which God becomes afraid that humankind will build a tower so high that it will challenge his lofty kingdom. In the story of Noah, meanwhile, he pulls open the windows in the raqiʿa, the firmament, letting the waters in his kingdom—the shamayim—leak down to flood the earth. Human beings, for their part, were never destined to enter heaven, with the notable exception of Enoch: they went below the earth regardless of their moral conduct and lived as half-dead phantoms. (I recommend this article, which gives a thorough account of Israelite cosmology and actually takes my argument even farther than I do.)

The Germans had their sky-god too, called Thor in some branches of their language. (Happy Thursday, by the way!) So obvious was it that he literally lived above the earth that St. Boniface was able to destroy the Hessians’ belief in him by cutting down his oak and not being instantly smitten by a lightning bolt from the sky. Finally, in the medieval Christian case, God was fully integrated into the Ptolemaic model of the universe. Going out from Earth, first there were the spheres of the planets, than those of the fixed stars. Finally, in the outermost sphere, there were God, the angels, and the righteous dead.

A sixteenth century drawing. Written around the outermost circle:
“The Fiery Heaven; the House of God and All the Elect.”
So how high is God? This is a map of exactly how high.
But we need only turn to etymology to find our proof: the identification of divine heaven with the sky shows itself in almost every historical European language. The German Himmel, the Greek uranos, the Romance ciel, and the Slavic nebo are all used for both the blue sky and the house of God. So is the Hebrew shamayim. In English itself, the word sky is a late Medieval import from Norse; before that, heofon was the generic word for what’s up there. When our ancestors prayed to fæder ure, þu þe eart on heofonum, and lifted their palms and faces skyward, they knew exactly why they were looking up.

(If you want to lose half an hour, by the way, look at this wonderful map.)

Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space, apocryphally said that he didn’t see any god up there. We take this as an ironic statement; absurd because we cannot imagine what the opposite would have been. But I submit that Gagarin’s comment would have been extremely surprising to most primitive people, and most pre-moderns in general, if they’d been able to conceive of space travel at all. If God wasn’t in the sky, where was he?

This leads me to a general point. It is often easy to forget just how strange non-modern religions were, at least with respect to our own Darwinian-Copernican world picture. To pre-modern man, the world was alive, and the sky even more so: it was populated by waking beings, enormous and vastly powerful. Phillips forgets this in his attempt to purify religion of any empirical stain, and we will forget it too if we read too much modern theology and too few ancient sources. We will also forget it if we don’t read at all.

We should take Phillips’ mistake as a cautionary tale. Phillips was perhaps the most analytically insightful religious philosopher of the twentieth century, and even he succumbed to ignoring the religious history that was not convenient to his idea of true religion. The cynic in me wants to say now that only an unbeliever can be free of the temptation to stain his religious history with religious precepts. But that’s not quite true. Anyone with a brain and a book can do history. But a believer, or anyone with an interest in the outcome of his scholarship, must simply be extremely wary, and at times subdue himself. He can tie himself to the mast as he sails past the Sirens.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Is Nihilism Right? A Badly Put Question

Nihilism, we learn in high school, is the claim that nothing matters. The assumption here is that we’re all agreed on what it would mean for something to matter. So that, when a nihilist looks out at the world, he decides that no, the right conditions aren’t met anywhere. He might say: we all die, and there’s no afterlife. And since there’s no reward or punishment, it doesn’t matter what we do. Nor do our accomplishments mean anything, because in the long run, everything which we’ve built or written will turn to dust. Or he’ll say: the world is just a ball of rock with some lukewarm growth on it, and the blind struggle of evolution over the last few billion years has produced some hairless apes who happen to be conscious. But they’re no different than the shrews; than the rocks; than the void for that matter.

And by the same token, when an anti-nihilist responds, he asserts that there are some things that in fact do matter. He might take a religious stand, and argue that God put everyone on earth with a specific purpose. Or he might appeal to the emotions, painting a vivid enough picture of the woods and mountains that it becomes hard to imagine that the world is this beautiful for no reason at all. Or, if he’s clever, he’ll say that everyone is in fact an implicit anti-nihilist. Because everyone does find something to live for, whether it’s their children or justice or their work; and the very fact that the self-proclaimed nihilist got dressed and fed his kids breakfast this morning proves that he’s not what he says he is.

This instinct to treat nihilism as a claim is tempting. If we want to reject nihilism, it’s comforting to be able to say that the nihilists have the facts wrong. Or, on the other side, if we decide to be nihilists ourselves, it helps our case to be able to say that the non-nihilists haven’t figured out the truth yet, but that with a little more information they would reject meaning too.

However: even though it’s a truth-claim on the tongues of English-speaking philosophers, I want to reject our instinct to read nihilism like that. In the first place, how could you test it? Just like it’s meaningless to prove the existence of values, so is it meaningless to deny them. Value is not a theory: You can’t prove that it’s good to feed the starving.

But you can feed the starving nonetheless, and the value you put on charity will show itself in your action. And this gives us a clue to the kind of theory that nihilism is: not a theory at all, but a commitment. Or, more properly speaking, a lack of commitment. So even though nihilism as a truth-claim is meaningless, it can, and does, exist in human lives. A person can live by nothing; can denounce the whole world as a stupid game. Anna Karenina does this, right before she dies:
Neither the conductor nor the people who entered noticed the expression of terror on [Anna’s] face under the veil. She went back to her corner and sat down. The couple sat on the opposite side, studying her dress attentively but surreptitiously. Anna found both husband and wide repulsive. The husband asked if she would allow him to smoke, obviously not in order to smoke, but in order to strike up a conversation with her. Having received her consent, he began talking with his wife in French about things he needed to talk about still less than he needed to smoke. They said foolish things to each other in an affected way only so that she would overhear them. Anna saw clearly how sick they were of each other and how they hated each other. And it was impossible not to hate such pathetically ugly people. (765–6) 
Later, she muses:
‘I’m unable to think up a situation in which life would not be suffering ... we’re all created in order to suffer, and we all know it and keep thinking up ways of deceiving ourselves. But if you see the truth, what can you do? 
‘Man has been given reason in order to rid himself of that which troubles him,’ the lady said in French, obviously pleased with her phrase and grimacing with her tongue between her teeth. 
The words were like a response to Anna’s thought. 
‘To rid himself of that which troubles,’ Anna repeated. And, glancing at the red-cheeked husband and the thin wife, she realized that the sickly wife considered herself a misunderstood woman and that her husband deceived her and supported her in this opinion of herself. It was as if Anna could see their story and all the hidden corners of their souls, turning her light on them. But there was nothing interesting there, and she went on with her thinking. 
‘Yes, troubles me very much, and reason was given us in order to rid ourselves of it. So I must rid myself of it. Why not put out the candle, if there’s nothing more to look at, if it’s vile to look at it at all? But how? Why was that conductor running along the footboard? Why are those young men in the other carriage shouting? Why do they talk? Why do they laugh? It’s all untrue, all a lie, all deceit, all evil!…’ (766–7)
Anna does not come to these conclusions because she has found anything out. It’s not like she had thought there was a point of living, and then forgotten it or realized that it was a lie. Instead she simply finds herself hating the world, which is horribly painful, and the people in it, who are ugly and selfish. Her nihilism grows like a black spore on her hatred.

Okonkwo, the tragic hero of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart, ends up a nihilist too. When the Christian Englishmen pull up the roots of the patriarchal society that had given sense to his life, he has two choices: violent revolt, and then suicide. The failure of the first leads him to the second. And so does Achilles. When his beloved Patroclus dies, he tries to kill even the Trojan river in his insane, world-defying fury.


In all of these people, nihilism is not a scientific claim. It’s not even a decision. It is an attitude; a resolution that the world and her rules are fit to be fled from, despised, or destroyed. A person can be a nihilist—or reject nihilism—given basically any conditions. Even if you provide immortal life, clear rewards and punishments for behavior, and voices from heaven to announce the moral truth, there will always be a Don Giovanni to reject it all in angry defiance. (To a medieval Christian, this is what the Jews did.) And even if you take away all semblance of coherence in the world, if you give the Jews over to the Nazis, and promise nothing but annihilation after death, there will always be a Primo Levi to accept these facts, and then stand up for reason and human dignity.

And yet: it would be blind to say that nihilism has no relationship whatsoever to the things that human beings have discovered to be true in the last few hundred years. In thirteenth-century Europe, before Copernicus’ heliocentrism had been dreamt of, the world was a naturally ordered place. The stars and planets overhead circled the earth, which was self-evidently at the center of creation. And it was taken for granted that the wicked would burn, and that the righteous would be reunited with their families in heaven.
The greatest scientist of the day.
These were not conditions under which it was easy to reject everything. The point of life seemed clear: to obey God, and to love your neighbor. Beyond that, you knew your place in the hierarchy that had been appointed for all of human society. A priest had his job, a knight had his, and it was considered bizarre to wish you’d been placed elsewhere in the great chain of being. Take this line from a medieval English textbook:
Swa hwæðer þu sy, swa mæsseprest, swa munuc, swa ceorl, swa kempa, bega oþþe behwyrf þe sylfne on þisum, ond beo þæt þu eart; forþam micel hynð ond sceamu hyt is menn nellan wesan þæt þæt he ys ond þæt he wesan sceal. 
Whatever you are, whether a mass-priest, or a monk, or a peasant, or a warrior, go about or instruct yourself in your craft, and be what you are: for it is humiliating and shameful for a person to be unwilling to be what he is and what he ought to be. —Ælfric of Eynsham (955–1010), Colloquy on the Occupations
So in spite of my earlier point that nihilism is not an empirical claim, there are certain empirical conditions that are conducive to its growth. Schopenhauer’s verdict on the world—that it is a meaningless cry of suffering—would have been hard to understand in the middle ages, before the ordered picture of society and the cosmos had been eviscerated by the emergence of scientific atheism.

But this historical caveat aside, I do want to be clear that nihilism does not need empirical justification. Its conceptual coherence comes from other sources. It is a way of life, and it is therefore more akin to asceticism or homosexuality than it is to, say, heliocentrism or the laryngeal theory. The laryngeal theory is either right or wrong, and I can criticize my friend for not believing in it. But it would make no sense to call asceticism incorrect: a person can simply choose to stop eating. The same goes with abandoning all commitments and taking a nihilist stand.

I have a motive for describing nihilism this way: I want to understand it properly so that I can uproot it. Empirically, I have as bleak picture of reality as it’s been possible to hold in human history. But I don’t think that the facts demand nihilism, because nihilism doesn’t follow from any facts. There are commitments that we can make, and thus values we can hold. Now, we could be nihilists, and we wouldn’t be wrong to. Except in a moral sense, and that’s the one that matters.