In my last note, I walked through a pattern in the biblical text (Job, the tower collapsing and killing people, the man born blind, Jesus on the cross). I pointed out how, in each of these stories, humanity's knee jerk reaction was to establish a cause-and-effect rationale for these occurrences. In each of these stories, God debunks this rationale, and does not replace it with anything ultimately satisfying. Instead, he provides humanity with a down payment of sorts. He climbs up on a tree and nails himself there. It's a gesture of solidarity, a narratological signal flare fired off which resonates down through history: "There are no answers (yet?), but take heart." It is the green light on Daisy's dock which shines dimly through the fog at the end of The Great Gatsby. There is no adequate answer to the why, but there's a who which manifests itself in all our meta-narratives, whether this who be labeled the Absolute Spirit, Allah, Brahman, the Real, the universe, or Yahweh.
When Moses asks to see Yahweh in his full glory, God more or less obliges: "And it shall come to pass, while my glory passes by, that I will put you in the cleft of the rock, and will cover you with My hand while I pass by" (Exodus 33:22). Moses is shielded because, as a subjective being, he cannot witness the fullness of God.
For atheists/existentialists, the experience is the same. When standing in front of the Niagara Falls, it is the sense of awe (the Sublime) at experiencing something so much more expansive than our minds can grasp. It is an emotional measuring stick of the distance between the bottom half of the diagram in my first note and the top half. If the Sublime is a testimony that there exists an objective reality independent of our subjective perceptions, aesthetics (beauty) is our compass. Even if all aesthetics can be reduced to evolutionary/ biological drives designed to help us choose a healthy mate, "healthy" is defined as that which endures, that which is sound, that which will increase the probability of healthy progeny, that which makes the midwife's job easier. Beauty helps to reveal the character of the Real. It is a compass, a hint as to where we might try our footing as we attempt to cross the chasm.
Just as Jesus' resurrection provides a down-payment toward managing suffering for Christians, Douglas Porpora points out that secular humanism has received its share of down-payments: "In our postmodern era, any suggestion of progress is suspect. Yet, is it really so outrageous to see some moral progress in our history? Although it may persist in some places, the evilness of slavery is now almost universally taken for granted."
The point of all this is to allay what I perceive to be humanity's greatest fear, perhaps best expressed by Frank Kermode: "[world] and book, it may be, are hopelessly plural, endlessly disappointing; we stand alone before them, aware of their arbitrariness and impenetrability, knowing that they may be narratives only because of our impudent intervention." Yet even Kermode must couch his statement in the "may be," he must leave that last line of escape, that wild Hegelian hope that all of reality is an attempt to realize a magnificent idea, that the unfolding of reality is a creative process.
Even for those like Richard Rorty who would take epistemic relativity to an extreme and claim that there is no "way things really are," hope must substitute "for the sort of knowledge which philosophers have usually tried to attain," hope for a better future, hope "that the future will astonish and exhilarate."
As a midwife, allow me a homiletic moment: Take hope. Take wild hope. Let the Sublime be your evidence. Let progress be your down-payment. Let beauty be your guide as you find your footing across the tight-rope which stretches between Derrida's irreconcilable interpretations of interpretation.
5 years ago