"What embitters the world is not excess of criticism, but an absence of self-criticism." - G.K. Chesterton

Thursday, December 28, 2006

Relativity and Literature 1.1

So here’s what’s shaking these days. I have WAY to many things going on that require far more brain power than I can muster. Oddly enough I’m loving every minute of it! Tom and Matt continue to contribute some great thoughts. The problem is Matt has gone ahead and written one super comment (third comment down) that rolls many big questions into one neat little package. I guess I can’t blame him. I was asking for it.

I’ve been trying to think of the best way to respond to that, but I’m running into a problem. My thoughts on the first half of his comment really were not all that well sorted out. When that happens I tend to write way more than is necessary. So I’ve decided to respond to Matt’s comment in three parts and post them each as new posts. For this to make any sense you will need to read Matts initial comment here. So having said that...

Matt,
I see what you are getting at with your literary example. As I sit here and ponder the parallel here what keeps coming to my mind is the difference in severity between the moral example and the literary example. In short, most people realize that literary criticism is subjective and act accordingly. No one is going to be thrown in jail over their opinion of shakespeare. Wars will not be started because of a disagreement with the collegiate cannon. On the other hand disagreements on morality often result in blood shed. Our reactions to moral disagreements, on the whole, show we believe that our arguments must be firmly rooted in reality for us to be moved to such extreme actions. No one is so absurd as to claim that the man who kills your wife in her sleep should be let off the hook because "He just doesn't see things like I do". However with literary disagreements it must often come to that.

I must admit I am totally out of my element when it comes to discussions of literature. In that case I should probably stay off it all together, but a few things come to mind that I'd like to explore a little. This will probably be one of my weaker arguments since I am not well versed in this field, so if this does not seem helpful just disregard it.

I would say the very fact that there is a field of literary criticism supports the position that there is a reality to existence that is above and beyond our individual experiences. There are two aspects of both morality and literature that I believe need to be considered. One aspect is a truly subjective quality. It is rooted in cultural upbringing, instinct and social climate. The other is the conviction that aside from our personal fancies regarding moral or literary issues there is a foundational, let's say 'eternal', truth that all moral questions and literary expressions rest on.

To some degree man can understand his existence purely by his own creative thoughts. Literary critics in turn can then evaluate how worthy these expressive thoughts are to be propagated. In the end that's pretty subjective stuff. However, I would argue that the longings of man for truth and meaning found throughout literature does in fact do have an answer. I believe the reason we have these longings is because we were made to seek our maker. He is the ultimate and foundational Fact that all creativity, reason, logic, love, meaning, hope, truth, beauty rest upon. He gives eternal meaning and worth to all the deepest longings of our hearts. On that level, the questions and expressions of human existence found in literature have a center and that center is by no means subjective.

Without God, literature, like existence, is just meaningless noise created by a meaningless fluke that began without meaning and will end without meaning. All of the passion, love and drama expressed in our finest works will be so completely forgotten as to render them next to having never existed at all. If there is no God I would argue that no, there is no point in studying the classics. Unless of course you happen to enjoy that sort of thing. If there is no God all you have is your raw meaningless feelings. Obey them for it's all you have. It's all you will ever have.

Now getting back to our parallel topic of morality I would also argue that to some degree man, on his own, can know the mind of God by studying himself. We are told that we are made in His image, therefore we should be able to ascertain a level of understanding of him by inward reflection. One field that has resulted from this inward reflection is the field of ethics. Though He need not be appealed to in it's practice, I would say that He it's ultimate source. Without acknowledging Him we can look inwards and ponder the rightness or wrongness of various actions and situations based solely off our feelings. We feel very strongly about right and wrong. It behooves us to act upon those feelings. Similar, though we may be, we all are left with varying opinions regarding who's 'right' is right and who's 'wrong' is wrong. Once again we are back to a very subjective situation. Without God you may argue about morality, but you may as well be arguing about who's favorite color is the best.

One last note on literature. Generally speaking you will not find a whole lot of literature waxing eloquent about the utter meaninglessness of our existence. I know you refuse to accept this as well. It shows through in your last post on Dr. Who. Most all literature is hung on the assumption that our experiences and reactions to them really do matter. There is a concreteness to our feelings regarding Beauty, justice, honor, betrayal etc... I would say that is because there really IS a meaning to our life. The general conviction of humanity testifies to it. The fact that the vast majority of humanity feels that there really is more to our experience than simply being a fluke in a mindless uncreated creation shows evidence of our higher calling. In that way God is intuitive. The reason he's not as intuitive as we'd like him to be is a conversation in it's self.

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23 Comments:

Blogger Matt M said...

Alex,

Oddly enough I’m loving every minute of it!

There's nothing better (well... okay, there's quite a lot better) than seat-of-your-pants theorising about life. I find that when reading through your posts I have a slightly vague sense of not quite agreeing with things, but it's only once I sit down and start typing out a reply that things (hopefully) come together - though this does result a lot in a my staring blankly at the screen for about ten minutes as I desperately try to figure out the point I want to make. :-)

what keeps coming to my mind is the difference in severity between the moral example and the literary example... Wars will not be started because of a disagreement with the collegiate cannon.

You've obviously not hung around literature students enough! ;-)

I know what you mean though. I wasn't trying to suggest any real kind of equivalence between the two, I just wanted to point out that you don't need absolute standards in order for something to be meaningful. For example, I think that James Joyce's 'Ulysses' is one of the most stunning books ever written, and I can argue a strong case for that (or at least I used to be able to - it's been a while), however I think that because the book resonates with something deep inside me. I feel drawn into it because it chimes with my life and the way I look at things. If it doesn't do that at all with another person, then my attempts to argue for it are pretty futile. But, the book is still hugely important to me.

Turning to morality, it's true that (if there are no absolutes) if my arguments don't resonate with the person then they have no real force - but that's an incredibly rare occurrence. We all of us have (to varying degrees) a sense of empathy towards other sentient creatures; a moral intuition, if you please. Certain acts strike us (without the need to think about it) as unpleasant or abhorrent. Whether you believe this sense is God-given or the result of evolution, it's there (except in people with certain genetic abnormalities), and it grounds morality and allows us to argue and convince people. For example, in the case of attempted murder the spur for action is a) the desire of the potential victim to stay alive, and b) my desire to (i) avoid the pain/disgust I instinctively feel at the injustice and brutality of the act, and (ii) to live in a society in which I and my loved ones don't have to worry too much about being murdered. These two things, allied, make morality solid. (Over time, what was initially just a case of natural empathy has been codified by society and called morality. This codification, by providing a common standard of behaviour, has allowed human beings to live together and co-operate to a level which has brought about modern civilisation, with all the benefits (and drawbacks) that come with it.) I don't need a divine being, sitting in judgement, to make it real and important.

In many ways, arguing about morality isn't any different than arguing over which colour is best - but the former is far more important to us, far more central to our lives, than the latter.

Human beings have (on the whole) an innate desire to live - morality, the rules which govern our behaviour, is vitally important to that, and so therefore vitally important to us. That gives it force. A shared basic human nature allows moral dialogue - in many important respects, the way I see the world is the same as how other people see it.

If there is no God all you have is your raw meaningless feelings.

Again, you've slightly side-stepped my central question in all of this: why does something have to be external or divinely-created in order to be valuable or meaningful? My life is important to me because it's my life - the only one I've got. I care deeply about the people around me because I care deeply about them.

Why isn't that enough for you?

2:33 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

In that way God is intuitive

But, the main reason I don't believe in God is because, for me, the idea isn't intuitive - the idea of his existence doesn't resonate inside me *at all*.

2:40 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Matt,
How do you do this? It took me three days to just put that last little bit together and your rattle off another three page comment while I step out for a quick meeting! You’re an animal! =)

It seems we are doing a lot of restating of our positions over an over again these days. Give me a chance to respond to the rest of your previous comment. Maybe then we move on. We’ll see.

Again, you’ve slightly side-stepped my central question in all of this: why does something have to be external or divinely-created in order to be valuable or meaningful?

Didn’t side-step it. I just haven’t gotten that far yet. Perhaps I should just let the rest of your comment lie and address that issue directly. I get the feeling what I will say to the balance of your previous comment will open up more bags than we can juggle at any one time... My problem is one of a lack of restraint. I feel that EVERYTHING that is said deserves a thoughtful analysis wether or not it’s central to the issue at hand. So therefore, I’m going to continue to respond to your previous comment in the three part series I had initially planned on. Who know’s maybe I’ll learn a little restraint from this... Then again... maybe not!

3:02 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

P.S. I always enjoy your quick little afterthoughts. It's become your trademark commenting style! =)

3:03 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

How do you do this?

I just start writing and hope for the best. :-)

Back when I was at uni, I found that leaving my essays to the last minute and then desperately racing to get them finished on time actually *improved* the marks I got. Though I suspect they got slightly annoyed by the sloppy grammar and spelling mistakes after a while. :-)

(It also meant quite high levels of stress, as I occasionally finished them off with only minutes to spare - thankfully, deadlines are completely absent where blogging is concerned.)

Didn’t side-step it. I just haven’t gotten that far yet.

I did think that might be the case, but just wanted to push the issue a little, as I think it's the main thing we differ on.

I always enjoy your quick little afterthoughts.

Heh. I have to restrain myself. If I'm not careful you could log on to find I've left twenty little comments on just the one post. One of the consequences of not really planning what you write.

3:32 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

I'd suppose most of my slowness stems from having a wife & kid + trying to finish my basement + full time job + multiple fronts to respond to on the blogging and email front. It's all good stuff though as long as you can stand a little lag on my end. It would be great if I could just sit around and type all day, but that would have to get old eventually would it not?

3:50 PM

 
Anonymous Ian said...

Gentlemen, I step into these comments with no little diffidence. In this and the previous posting linked to by Alex, there is passion, eloquence and insight - you set a high standard, and whatever level I actually achieve I promise I am at least striving to approach yours.

I cannot resist the temptation, however, as the use of literature as a comparison strikes a strong chord with thoughts I have been having recently. I may well be retreading familiar theological ground, in which I case I hope you'll let me know, but is it useful to see God as Metaphor?

I should state that I am agnostic, feeling that the God I am not sure about has not been adequately evoked by any religion. Assuming,for the sake of argument, there is a supreme being, then there is only one,and the different traditions are each describing Him (for want of a better pronoun)incompletely. Blind men and elephants are often evoked in this regard,I believe.

If, as Alex argues, and it seems a reasonable contention, literature does represent mankind's struggle to find meaning, then is religion just a specialised version of this search? I understand that, for those who can, reading the Koran in Arabic provides great aesthetic pleasure, aside from anything else. Even as an agnostic, I respond to the English rhythms of the King James Bible.

The same argument, incidentally, could apply to scientific theories seeking to explain the world, including that part of it that relates to our morality. It is simply a metaphor framed in very different terms, albeit one I personally am finding increasingly unsatisfying.

There are universal codes of ethics, acts which all societies decree taboo. Similarly, all societies develop religions, myths and epics. Each of these could be thought to represent a literary effort to explain us and our origins, including that of our moral codes. Understanding that it is metaphor ought not to lessen the richness of the story, nor invalidate the particular precepts of a given story as tenets to live by.

And so I suppose I agree to a large extent with Matt; we do not need an external source for our life to have meaning. But I may differ in arguing we can use God as a metaphor for the drive within us to seek meaning, which may be compellingly satisfied for many by religious belief.

6:48 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Ian,
It is good to have you here! I am always delighted to meet another who thinks deeply on these issues. However, I must say you are the straw that has broken the camels back. It has been my desire from the start of this blog to respond in great detail to each person who takes the time to lay out their thoughts. I am realizing now I'm going to have to rethink that. I may have to move away from the continuous conversation format that has been started to more of a traditional approach. It pains me not to be able to go into a full blown one on one conversation with each person I meet. But I can see no way to continue in that way. The topics on my blog are so deep and complicated that they don't usually get short comments that can be answered with short replies. I don't want to appear that I'm not interested in what is being said, but my life simply will not permit me to while away hours upon hours on he computer.

At any rate you brought up several good points that I hope to come back to eventually.

1. If literature represents mankind's struggle to find meaning, then is religion just a specialised version of this search?

2. All societies develop religions, myths and epics. Each of these could be thought to represent a literary effort to explain us and our origins.

For the most part I agree with you on these two. But if you believe that Jesus was God, as I do, he becomes the fulfillment of all mans inherent "good dreams" about who God is. The author himself walks out onto the stage and tells us what the story is all about. It's about Gods unceasing love for man and his pursuit of our love. The Christian story is then the only story where it is God's pursuit of man, not the other way around. Of course there is much that needs to be accepted for one to take that position. Hopefully I can go into it in time. Let's let it suffice to say that I don't take it on blind faith, but in the end, like many things in life, it is faith.

Dang, I couldn't resist on that one.

3. we can use God as a metaphor for the drive within us to seek meaning

Do you mean this in a purely symbolic fashion? Perhaps I'm not following you here, but I don't see how this works. The scientific twist on that metaphor does nothing to satisfy our drive for meaning. It satisfies our curiosity about the 'how' questions, but it does nothing for the 'why''s Unless of course God is a part of the equation. God can do nothing for our drive for meaning if he is simply a metaphor. I'm sure I'm probably missing some of the subtleties of your reasoning here, feel free to fill me in.

Ian, I'm glad you popped in. I hope to see you around often!

7:23 AM

 
Anonymous Ian said...

Alex, thank you for your kind welcome, I'm also glad I stopped by.

I hear what you say about the difficulties of using the blog format to discuss these themes (although it would be nice to see more blogs attempting to tackle them), as well as the other demands life places on us, and I entirely understand. I'll try and respond to your questions now, but please don't take this as a demand for a quick response. I'll also be happy to (try to) clarify my argument further, on the same understanding.

I should say that, although I have been mulling this over for a while, it is the first time I have tried to set my thoughts down on the subject. I'm also not trying to lay down a dogma, but genuinely to explore the question. With these two caveats in mind, it's no surprise there may be a lack of clarity or consistency in what I have written.

I will need to think more on what you have said about the role of Jesus in telling the story, and perhaps I will do best to wait for your further posting on this subject.

As for your point 3, well I see two issues here. Firstly, I obviously haven't been clear enough. I was hoping to say that for me science is not just a variation on the same sort of metaphor as I take religion to be, but a fundamentally different attempt to address the same sort of questions. I think one of the beliefs of science is that the more we answer the "how" questions, the closer we might be to answering "why". I still think it too can be described as a metaphor,just one framed in very different terms.

But, because the two metaphors are so different, I find it difficult to imagine there will ever be scientific proof for God's existence (or, indeed, the lack of it). Is there any way in which science can account for faith? To put it another way, I doubt that God will ever be part of a scientific explanation, given the way the two discourses are set up.

Secondly, and this is the crux of the matter, do I mean this purely symbolically? You flatter me by talking about missing the subtleties of my reasoning when in fact I think it might be confusion on my part rather than subtlety... On the one hand, a metaphor is just a kind of symbol, yet on the other I mean it more seriously than just some kind of postmodern cleverness. You wrote that we were made to seek our maker. So God is the driver for these explanations, or to bring it closer to home, for us to have these discussions. It's just that, if I understand aright, you attribute to God a separate existence outside of us, whereas I place Him inside.

8:40 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Ian,

It's always great to have another point of view on these things, especially one as interesting as yours. Plus, it does prevent this becoming just 'The Matt and Alex Show'.

I think that human beings have a general desire to make sense of the world, to figure out how it works and what our place in it is - literature, at it's best is a strong part of that, and yes, as an agnostic leaning more towards the atheistic view of things, I see strong connections between it and religion. Both can be seen as attempts to create narratives about the world, to impose order onto it. There's a desire for explanation and consistency which, in my opinion, leads to literature, myth and religion.

The problem with God as metaphor though is that it can't really satisfy either side: If you're religious then God has to be much more than that. If you're atheistic then you have no real need of it.

8:46 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Ian and Matt,
Again you two have made me want to quit my job, get a comfortable smoking jacket and spend the rest of my day continuing this facinating conversation. Alas... 7 more hours in the wonderful world of advertising for me. Hopfully I can devote some time to this tonight!

8:56 AM

 
Anonymous Ian said...

Matt, likewise, thanks for the welcome.

The problem with God as metaphor though is that it can't really satisfy either side: If you're religious then God has to be much more than that. If you're atheistic then you have no real need of it.

You've pretty much skewered my argument right there, and I accept it is probably a fatal flaw. Mind you, perhaps the very reason why I find the idea so compelling is that, as an agnostic, I fall between the two stools.

5:57 PM

 
Anonymous Ian said...

Actually, though, now I've thought about it some more, while I take the point that it's neither here nor there for an atheist, I wonder whether God as metaphor still might work for a believer.

Granted, it means accepting my premise that no religious tradition describes God as He* actually is. This assumption is based on my implicit idea (which I should perhaps have made explicit) that humanity is imperfect and fallible, and therefore is simply unable to comprehend all the aspects of any putative supreme being. That being the case, whatever a believer understands by the term 'God' can only ever be a metaphor, a distorted reflection of His* real nature.

I don't think the concept of humanity being imperfect is unknown to religion. God as metaphor would appear to me to acknowledge that fallibility. It certainly seems as though it would chime well with certain strands of the Christian tradition.

7:16 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Ian,
you attribute to God a separate existence outside of us, whereas I place Him inside.

This may be splitting hairs, but then again, maybe not. I place God as separate from creation, but all creation to be derivative from Him. In the case of humanity we are unique amongst creation, in that we are told we are made in his 'image'. Obviously we are not talking about our appearance here, but more likely about our 'essence'. We as rational beings have built inside us the ability to recognize, give and respond to Love. We can reason, use logic, create art, seek justice, recognize beauty. All of those things are part of God's 'image'.

I would not go down the road of eastern philosophies to state that we ARE God. That avenue leaves untouched all our quests for meaning and purpose. It would look much closer to Matt's philosophy of creating our own meaning and purpose. Having said that I would state still assert that he can live 'in' us. Keeping in mind the biblical fall of man, I would say that in the current state of affairs he does not reside in all of us, though he seeks to. We certainly have the option of rejecting him. Many do. Those that reject him still retain his 'image' while not receiving the transformation that is caused by his indwelling.

Now I must admit much of what I just said goes way over my head in it's implications as well as the practicalities that surround it's asserted reality. Basically I believe it. It makes sense to me, but I don't get it. If that makes any sense. Concepts of God residing inside me really go beyond any experiential reality available to me. The position I just put forth does not break any rules of logic (that I'm aware of) yet it does break all the rules of a naturalistic/materialistic position. If you were to say "Prove it!" I have noting to give. Still it's the kite I'm flying. ;-)

8:08 PM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

I would say that in the current state of affairs he does not reside in all of us, though he seeks to.

This will probably be answered in one of your upcoming posts about your view of God, but I feel the need to indulge my pedantic side.

If God seeks to reside in all of us, then why doesn't he? If He chooses not to, on the grounds of our moral standing, etc. then can he really be seen as an all-loving God? As surely the best way to steer people out of a sinful existence is *through* God's love, not the absence of it? If it's a case of us rejecting Him, then a) what does it say about the nature of Him that He cannot show us His love, even though he wants to, and b) how does that square with the fact that people like myself "rejected" the idea of God because when we looked inside ourselves for what our "belief" (in my case, an extremely light one) meant we found nothing?

(No pressure for you to reply specifically to this - but, it might help you in an upcoming post, knowing that this is how I (and others) see things)

6:48 AM

 
Blogger Alex said...

All the right questions Matt. I'll try to address the best I can in my next post. I know exactly where you are comming from. I've been there myself.

8:05 AM

 
Anonymous Ian said...

Alex, you said We as rational beings have built inside us the ability to recognize, give and respond to Love. We can reason, use logic, create art, seek justice, recognize beauty. All of those things are part of God's 'image'. I think there is potential for considerable crossover between your idea of God's image and mine of God as metaphor (semantically, I think the two terms are linked, as well). In my way of thinking, God could serve as a metaphor for those capacities you mention, the ones that help raise us above just being a "moist robot". (That's a phrase I like very much, incidentally. I hope I am using it here in the sense you intended.)

I also think I follow your assertion that God can live 'in' us; as ever, I had not expressed myself sufficiently well in the dichotomy I had set up. In saying that I understood you to grant God an external existence, I had not meant to exclude the possibility that He* might also simultaneously reside within us in one sense or another.

If you were to say "Prove it!" I have noting to give. Still it's the kite I'm flying. ;-)

Well, as I've said elsewhere, I'm not sure that the concept of proof is particularly relevant here, and, anyway, kites in flight can be beautiful things. I'm just not sure that the one I have cobbled together will stay aloft for long.

7:10 PM

 
Anonymous Ian said...

Matt, you asked a really intriguing set of questions. I hope you don't mind me having a go at answering them instead of waiting for Alex.

Before I do, let me re-iterate that I am agnostic. However, for me your questions approach the parts of Christianity that I find most compelling, and I'll be answering according to my interpretation of that tradition, even if I have not bought into it myself, which means I will inevitably be making a lot of assumptions and begging a lot of questions.

So, If God seeks to reside in all of us, then why doesn't he? Because the greatest gift that God gave us is free will. He loved us sufficiently to let us, his creation, make our own way. So, even if we reject Him, He shows His love by allowing us to do so. His residence or otherwise within us is thus not linked to our moral standing.

Linked to this, then, is my response to this question: Surely the best way to steer people out of a sinful existence is *through* God's love, not the absence of it? I think the usual teaching is that God's love is there for us if only we seek it: [e.g.]. But I can't begin to answer why you did not find it when you looked (if I have correctly understood the implication of your last question).

My own take is that, without this element of decision, if we cannot choose whether to accept or reject it, then God's love is meaningless It would negate the difference between right and wrong, as presumably we would all be doing right all the time. This would be, in effect, a divine dictatorship, a concept I am strongly tempted to describe as hellish. For me, the idea that God wants us to do the right thing, but doesn't force us to even though He could, suggests a very profound love.

Viewed from this perspective, then, the notion that God sent an incarnation of Himself to die in atonement for our sins is a further exceptionally powerful sign of His love for us, especially given we have the ability to believe it or not.

The thing is, though, however moving I find that narrative, however rich a, yes, metaphor it is for the human condition, it smacks too much of the anthropic principle. We are the way we are, so God must be that which explains us. I can't be sure that it isn't simply a God written in response to observable events. So, for me, even if it is the Greatest Story Ever Told, and I'm not saying it is, it is still only a story.

[My apologies for the Christian-centric nature of this comment, it's just the religious tradition I happened to grow up in.]

8:16 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

Some good thoughts there Ian. It's bed time on my end then I'll probably be out for a couple days for the New Years festivities. However, some of the things you said brought to mind a book summary I read not to long ago by a man by the name of Loyal Rue. His book is called By the Grace of Guile Curious what you think of his reasoning.

Hope you all have a splendid New Years! I'm going to be spending most of mine in the woods along a river gorge discussing these sorts of topics with a few good friends. It just never seems to end for me! =)

10:17 PM

 
Blogger Alex said...

P.S. Moist Robot is a Scot Adams term. Would love to claim it as my own, but I'm really not that clever. =)

10:58 PM

 
Anonymous Ian said...

Oh, I don't know about your postscript, Alex. On the basis of your writing here, it seems an easy mistake to make.

Have a great new year, yourself; also Matt, and your other readers. I look forward to more of your posts in time.

6:48 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Ian,

Because the greatest gift that God gave us is free will.

Just a quick comment: Why is free will incompatible with knowledge of God? Surely, in order for our decisions to be truly free, we need to understand the rules of the game?

Why does He leave His existence a mystery (unsolved for thousands of years)? It's very easy to say that everyone has an innate knowledge of God but choose to reject Him - but think about what you're really saying here: That people like me *decided* to reject perfect love and risk an eternity of damnation. Why would any sane human being do that?

6:56 AM

 
Blogger Matt M said...

Plus - why all the big whoop about free will anyway? Surely an existence guided by the most perfect being in the universe would be better than one where we stumble around in the darkness, looking for something firm to cling to?

Why, if God exists and is a merciful being, did He condemn us with free will?

7:18 AM

 

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