gall and gumption

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Ghost of Voltaire

I have a close relative who, from our last, rather disconnected conversation, seems to be experiencing some doubts about the Christianity he grew up with.

What struck me in what he said, and was part of the reason I was not much help to him, was that he apparently needed to settle this whole business as a matter of fact. That is, he was puzzling over the question of whether Jesus existed or performed miracles/son of God, etc. He had read a book (I forget the name) and it had apparently put the matter into some doubt in his mind.

The question of fact in religion has never troubled me. It always seems to me to be totally beside the point. And boring. I have always thought that those branches of Christianity that try to make themselves more "scientific" ("scientistic" is really the more appropriate term) always seemed a bit creepy: that whole school of calculating the exact date of Armageddon and then having to recalculate with, no apology, no explanation, just going on as if you hadn't made an ass of yourself, they all just seem to be idiot creeps to me. And the ones who are hoping to tilt events toward Armageddon are just plain evil. All of that exegetical text-munching through the Apocalypse to prove its "facts", just nuts. Those are people one crosses the street to avoid.

In so far as I had any religion in my upbringing at all it was the kind you got in Anglican grade schools. Prayers and a hymn in the morning, occasionally a visit from a Bishop or other dignitary from the diocese, Scripture classes along with art and science and math and English. A Christmas pageant of course, and Easter activities. I have only the fondest memories of all of it. The hymns move me, perhaps because they are so evocative of that period of my childhood.

One day shortly after I arrived in St. Kitts I found myself on the street during a children's parade, led by one of the local steel bands. They played "Onward Christian Soldiers" and I have never heard anything like it. I heard it and my eyes instantly teared up. If you’ve only heard a steel band playing in a hotel it sounds like the smarmiest thing, a superior form of musical tranquilizer that gets the tourist geezers onto the dance floor. But on the road it seems to be calling to your very insides to get up and march. As the band came closer to where I was standing the music seemed to be punching the sky and taking full possession of everything on the ground. Behind the troupe of little children, solemnly dancing and looking lost, there were a few volunteer marchers who had hitched along -- these neat little old ladies in their little everyday straw hats and their homemade dresses with the pleated skirts that is like the standard workday wear for a certain type of elderly church lady -- and they were dancing along, eyes half-closed, in a happy trance, winding their waists discreetly.

Any version of the Bible other than the King James I don't even try to read. I indulge in the sentiment that they are a form of vandalism against the English language. Jamaican language is steeped in the King James Bible. My mother, who is a practicing Buddhist, still dredges up little scraps of it, usually because it has some relevance to whatever Kia’s Current Issue is. For a while she was big on "I have not done the thing I ought to have done and I have done the thing I ought not to have done." Part of the poetry of the King James Bible and almost all proverbs as spoken by my mother is that she mangles them slightly.

Here is a sample of a proverb that she has been saying to me for a few years now, when we talk about whether or not I should have opened my big mouth and said something indiscreet. This is how she says it.

There are three things that once you let them out they can never be called back: words, smoke, and I forget the third thing. I think it's a belch. Well. Anyway, you get the idea.

And she also says them as if their relevance is only striking her just now, all these years after grade school, and she finds that kind of piquant, amusing. Which means that her religious education was a lot like mine. We heard the poetry of it and nothing else.

My grandmother was also a great nonbelieving quoter of Scripture. She was also a teller of naughty jokes that usually involved something embarrassing happening to a clergyman. She knew the Bible. In 1980, living in California, she befriended this rather sweet young American woman at the supermarket, recently returned from a sojourn with a Rasta boyfriend in Jamaica. (It was like we had known her for ever hahaha.) Not long after she met Mama, Betsy joined this weird cult where you had to give up all your possessions, dress in a white robe, and walk around looking for Christ who was, according to this group, walking around looking for His children. Mama tried to talk her out of it, to no avail. Betsy, wearing her new white robe, came by to say goodbye with these two tough characters, two road-hardened women in robes who continually rolled cigarettes and smoked them, squinting at the smoke and looking villainous. And Mama kept trying to get Betsy not to go with them. It began as a discussion of what their plans were, and of their religious doctrine, and then evolved into an intense theological discussion. For every point they raised, quoting the Bible, Mama could match them with another quote that contradicted them. She kept this argument up, steadily, cheerfully, tirelessly, for about two hours and I never saw her even begin to lose her cool. And she did not have a Bible in front of her; it was all out of her head. But she got at least one of the other two women irritated and defensive, and would have enjoyed that more had they not won the argument by taking Betsy off with them. We never heard from her again.

The housekeepers who had charge of me and my brother when we were home from school in the afternoons also quoted the King James Bible at us, along with little scraps of poetic Victoriana that they had picked up during their few years of school.

For instance, Bernicie, who worked for my grandmother, said, “A whistling woman and a crowing hen is an abomination to the Lord.” She said that when I showed her how I had learned to whistle. Which, as I had been looking forward to impressing her (I adored Bernicie), was a bit of a let down.

But actually believing that it was true? I never saw any need to. It was vivid to my imagination, and for me that has a kind of emotional weight that I feel just as forcefully as if it were true; for the same reason, I have never been able to watch or read “Old Yeller, or any of those stories or films where the heroic dog dies. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves scared me, because the thieves got cut up and hung in pieces in the front of the cave. That always seemed dreadful to me. And I was always alarmed lest the Two Old Bachelors in Edward Lear’s poem would actually eat the mouse along with the muffin, and after my grandmother read me, at seven, the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, I made a solemn pledge to myself that I would never go anywhere near an albatross. I have kept that pledge, too.

I'm with Voltaire: it doesn't matter what you believe, as long as you don't act like a shit and don’t preach foolishness.

But with this relative I mentioned, his difficulty arises, from where I sit, from the difference between reasoning from origins and reasoning from consequences. All religious nuts reason from origins. Even when they imagine consequences (the slippery slope to mass euthanasia, cloning, abortion on demand and Islamofascists in the shrubbery) they are still starting from wacky origins. They all want to believe that their foundational origins are matters of fact, with the same kind of authority as science. And that wish seems to me a total misunderstanding of both science and religion.

This relative is also a Republican. And during his short visit, a few other relatives took issue with his politics. And it turned into a long argument. I usually stay out of these things but I didn’t this time. At one point he said, “Well, I’m just going to trust the facts.” Which always sounds pretty great. The facts are out there but a lot of what is so terrible about the times we live in is not the availability of facts but the corruption of judgment. After we have tediously hashed out a provisional and tentative agreement as to the facts, what am I to do when I discover that a person judges the victims of hurricane Katrina to be “losers”? To correct this judgment is not a matter of fact; it’s a matter of feeling. And you can’t tell me that feelings don’t matter. Once the facts have been settled, feelings are everything. It’s our feelings that will decide how we act in response to the sufferings of others. Even if I believe I am only dealing with facts I have made a value judgment about the facts that should matter. What kinds of judgments should I make?

One day I was out in Santa Rosa, California with the Last Ex. We passed a homeless man with a cardboard sign at an intersection and the Ex said that he didn’t give people money because they might spend it on drink or drugs. He said it rather sorrowfully, as if he was rather disappointed that their undeservingness prevented his charitable impulse. I hear people say this all the time. Well, once when I was at Columbia this guy stopped me; he was obviously in serious trouble. He was gay, he was sick, he had just been released from the hospital, he didn’t have any money, he was homeless, and he was very hungry. He begged me for whatever I could spare and promised me that he wasn’t going to spend it on lobster or anything. The sad thing was I sensed that in better days he probably had liked living high. I gave him a couple dollars and I wished that I could have given him enough to buy another lobster dinner.

In New York that same year I got accosted by a crack addict who was twitching to get his hands on whatever change I picked up at a little bodega. It was dreadful the way he hovered around me looking hungrily and savagely at me. I gave him some change, less than a dollar, and was angry at myself for it, but I didn’t know how else to make him go away. That was the only time I ever felt irritated by someone begging. Because it was so clear what he wanted to do, and he was so unhuman with it.

But in general I prefer to just give, no questions asked. So what if they are going to get a hit of meth or a can of malt liquor? They still need to eat. And I don’t really see what puts me in judgment over a person who is suffering, I don’t see what entitles me to police their life and decide whether they should eat on the basis of some judgment about what they might do. I don’t care whether a person is homeless because she is an alcoholic, or because she can’t get her act together. I feel the hardship of their situation is so urgent, that all judgment seems like an irrelevancy, self-indulgence on my part. I see them and I think, they need shelter, money, a kind word. My god, if I can’t spare them some change at least I can spare them from the presumption of my superiority. But none of this, as you can see, is based on fact. It’s based on feelings.

William Blake told the journalist Crabb Robinson about his conversations with visiting spirits and angels. Marvin Mudrick used to quote one line from Robinson’s notes of the things Blake said.

"I have had much intercourse with Voltaire and he said to me, "I blasphemed the Son of Man and it shall be forgiven me. But they (the enemies of Voltaire) blasphemed the Holy Ghost in me and it shall not be forgiven them.'"

Voltaire was one of the spirits who visited Blake. Marvin admired this statement immensely.

I do not need proof that there were angels in the room, or proof that the ghost of Voltaire visited Blake, to be impressed with the truth of what that ghost said. I am skeptical about ghosts. I am skeptical of the existence of spirits and angels that drop by and chat. I do not believe in the Holy Ghost. Strictly speaking I don’t really believe in blasphemy. I don’t believe there’s a heaven or a hell or that we will be called to account for our actions before the throne of God, in whom I don’t believe.

But I believe what Blake says Voltaire told him.

(And when I listen to the Tuba Mirum. in Mozart’s Requiem Mass--

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
cum vix justus sit securus?

I get totally real shivers.)

I like to put that Blake statement up against this Jesus one: “Whatsoever you do unto the least of these you do unto me.” (I’m pretty sure I’ve mangled it – blame my mother.) By itself it sounds great. But next to Blake it sounds different: it sounds like the Disciples are beginning to get on His nerves. Imagine if you had a great troop of people following you around expecting miracles. You know that after they got converted to believing in you these misfits would behave themselves for a few days and the bickering would start up again. They’d be feeling superior to all the unconverted and would go on and on and on about it, and the bickering would drive you half mad. And since Jesus couldn’t get them to shut up for their own sakes He tried to get them to shut up for His sake.

There is a certain psychological truth in this story, factually true or not: to quote Theodore Zeldin, “There is a shortage of respect in the world.” We are so sluggishly, dimly aware of the life of others. We are like crabs in a barrel. The compliment of recognizing the full humanity of another person, of recognizing in them the humanity we aren’t even sure we have ourselves, we pay most reluctantly, saving it up for the most conspicuously deserving. Like Donald Trump. (Nope, makes no sense to me either.) But that is often how it works out. At any rate, somehow Jesus got through to these dimwits and they saw that He had the Holy Ghost. It was probably the miracles that did it: kung fu might have worked as well, or being a NASCAR driver or having boatloads of money. They weren’t quite evolved enough to see that each of them had the Holy Ghost too; they didn’t see that what they did to others they were doing to themselves. And just at this point I think Jesus must have been sick and tired of trying to get it into their thick skulls.

But Blake, you see, saw it all in a flash. Voltaire’s ghost wasn’t talking about his personal enemies. It was mostly his intellectual adversaries, the religious persecutors, the promoters of pious nonsense and intellectual frauds, the forces he had battled as a writer and thinker and scholar. “They blasphemed the Holy Ghost in me,” said the ghost of Voltaire. They blasphemed the Holy Ghost in you, too. Yeah, you. Who did you think I was looking at?

At any rate between Jesus and Blake there is this one little point of agreement; that each of us is possessed of a bit of the Holy Ghost. Or all of it. (You and St. Augustine can go work the details out between you.) They share the idea that to sin against the other is to sin against the Holy Ghost that is in you. You can see what a useful idea this is. I haven’t really found a substitute for it. I don’t believe in it the way I believe in natural selection or heavy metals or mitochondria or magnetic fields, but I find it useful, indispensable, for my imagination, which is where I actually conduct most of my relations with other people.

But if I am put upon to defend this position, how do I do it? Am I supposed to go, “Well, the justification of my moral preference is in Dr. Bunglewit’s treatise on Biblical archaeology?” Where is the justification, exactly? I honestly don’t know, finally. I only know that I have to appeal to feelings, to use my imagination to feel what another person feels. I confess that I think people who can’t do this are not really human. And I’d have serious reservations about letting them associate with my dog.

I haven’t done more than state a preference; but it’s a preference that takes up a lot of room in my head. I prefer to pay people this compliment; I prefer to see them this way.

So is there some more forceful way to justify this preference? Without referring to social science experiments (they bore the living shit out of me, frankly). Too general a question, maybe? Maybe it only matters what you do in a particular situation, you just rely on your instincts and your good nature? But when you appeal to this principle or some version of it, what is this principle resting on? That’s what I’m asking.

It doesn’t need to be resting on anything, is my whole point. But even though it doesn’t rest on anything I’d still fight to defend it and wouldn’t yield to anyone on it. I will not let myself be persuaded out of it.


At 3:34 PM, Anonymous leslie said...

My daughters and I were having a similar theological discussion at breakfast about the difference beween what I believe and what the fundamentalist Christians believe, and the best way I could think of to explain it was that they believe we need to invite God to live in our hearts, and then Naomi interrupted to say that we believe God already lives there and in fact, he is sitting in his favorite chair, drinking tea.

At 11:31 PM, Anonymous mw said...

How to justify a moral preference? In a universe that's seventeen billion years old? In a universe with 200 billion galaxies each containing 200 billion stars? How to justify morality when you and your species are so insignificant, certainly no less so than ants or orangutans in that vastness of space and time?

That's the kind of question you, as a thinking person, have to deal with when you acknowledge the reality of scientific fact. There are more stars than human beings. There are more galaxies. What do we matter in this grand scheme of things, especially when in all liklihood there is no scheme? And what does our morality matter? Doesn't matter a whit.

Nevertheless, against all evidence, I too believe that it does. One could try to justify this belief in this "holy ghost" in utilitarian terms. I think we are, on average, much happier as individuals when we act in a moral manner. I think we are better off as a society when our governments act morally. But can I prove it? No. And if it's just utilitarian, is it really moral?

Worse yet, that definition of "moral" means radically different things to different folk. As you know, the worst kind of people are so often the ones who are most publicly concerned with morality.

Perhaps the trick is for each individual to worry about his or her own? We only need to justify it when we screw someone. Or, I guess, when we explain to our parents why we're still poor.

Anyway, I take a somewhat different view on the relevance of fact to religion. When you climb Mount Olympus and find no gods living there, it pretty much destroys that particular religion. What good is Judaism if the Jews were never slaves in Egypt? Why is Christianity relevant if Jesus never existed? That's not to say that the moral, intellectual, and artistic gems in those religions are not still valid, but the pearls of wisdom stand alone as the structural rot of the religion crumbles around them.

Personally, I find the "Did Jesus Exist" question very interesting. First and foremost, it's interesting as an academic question. There's mysteries to be solved and evidence to be sifted. Secondly, and distantly so, it's interesting in the "so many people believe that crap and the guy is a fictional character" kinda way.

As to the larger spiritual issues, I see no connection whatsoever between whether Jesus existed and whether morality exists. Or use the term "holy ghost" like Voltaire's ghost prefers. Doesn't matter. I see no connection.

As for texts to justify your beliefs, you know the answer to that. Myself? One day I was randomly browsing the shelfs in the library. I came across José Saramago's The Gospel according to Jesus Christ, read the dust cover and picked it up. A few minutes later, while looking at Buddhist books, I notes The Jesus Legend by G.A. Wells. The former a work of high art, the latter a work of meticuloous academics. Reading them more or less simultaneously opened up a new area of interest for me, and if pressed, would have to choose them to justify my beliefs regarding the holy ghost.

I imagine the chuckling character comes off as a bit of an anti-religious nut case on the subject, but I have a somewhat more nuanced perspective.

That was, by the way, a great piece of writing. I enjoyed it very much.


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