"I would we were all of one mind, and one mind good." --Cymbeline, V.iv.209-210. An English teacher's log. Slow down: Check it once in a while.

Thursday, November 23, 2006

A Good Word about Atheists

A chapel talk originally given October 19, 1989. Happy Thanksgiving!

Chapel may seem an odd place for it, but I’m going to say a good word about atheists. One reason I want to do so is that some of my best friends think of themselves as atheists. Another reason is the unsavory images of God held by some people who think of themselves as theists: I mean those believers who are certain that God is American, anti-communist, English-speaking, macho, and white; or the ones who are absolutely certain that God wants them to condemn, terrorize, and kill in his name; or the ones who are certain that God means for them to serve him by getting rich on the contributions of the faithful poor; or the ones who are certain that the deepest insight God expects from us is, in the words of the Church Lady (played by Dana Carvey on “Saturday Night Live”): “Isn’t that special?”; or the ones who are certain that God damns those who believe differently from them. Atheists are valuable because they tell these theists a truth they need to hear: No such God exists.

Of course many of us hold much better images of God than those I’ve just listed. But we too need our atheist friends. In addition to the rest of the good that they do, atheists keep us humble. For one thing, it is humbling to find that we simply cannot convince them of what is so obvious to us, namely that God exists. What a dramatic proof of the limits of our powers of argumentation! For another thing, the atheist’s resistance to our arguments reminds us that it was not through argument that we ourselves came to faith. His conviction shows us that it is not in our power to dictate who will believe in God and who won’t. But atheists keep us humble in another way, too. They show us that all images of God, even the truest, are limited.

We can all pretty much reject the images of God I mentioned at first. God has no race or political party; he is not a terrorist or a tyrant, a high-pressure salesman or a sentimentalist. But what about the images of him that we embrace—creator and preserver, lawgiver and judge, punisher and destroyer, forgiver and redeemer? We who have these images hold to them on good authority—the authority of revelation. We believe that, in one or more ways, God has revealed himself to humanity, informing us how to imagine him rightly so that we may worship him rightly. The Children of Israel at Mount Sinai, the hearers of the Sermon on the Mount, and other good authorities have testified to meeting face to face with the divine. And on their authority, coupled with our own experience, we trust to the images of God that they have passed down to us. They are good images and true ones, and they provide us a path toward God.

But they are not themselves God. Even the best images of the divine are limited because no revelation to man reveals God in his totality. How could it? Who would be able to receive it? If we are ideas in God’s mind, so to speak, how could God’s fullness be reduced to an idea in ours? No more than Shakespeare could have been conceived of by Hamlet. Revelations reveal God to us as we can perceive him, not as he is in himself, because in comparison with the infinite mystery of God our capacity to experience him is minute. He makes himself knowable through images, but no image can contain him.

Now I don’t say all this on my own authority: Speaking from the whirlwind, God says to Job, “Where wast thou when I laid the foundations of the earth?” (Job 38:4). In other words, who are you to presume to know what I am up to? The great medieval Jewish philosopher and Torah scholar Maimonides writes, “All people, both of past and present generations, declared that God cannot be the object of human comprehension, that none but Himself comprehends what He is, and that our knowledge consists in knowing that we are unable truly to comprehend Him” (Guide for the Perplexed, I.59). Saint Thomas Aquinas says, “God is not to be comprehended, for he is infinite and cannot be contained in any finite being” (Summa Theologiae, Ia.xii.7.ad1). Dante, in his ultimate allegorical vision of God, cries, “O Light Eternal, that alone abidest in Thyself, alone knowest Thyself . . . !” (Paradiso, XXXIII.124–25). And Rav Kook, the twentieth-century Talmudic scholar and mystic, says, “All the divine names, whether in Hebrew or in any other language, give us only a tiny and dull spark of the hidden light to which the soul aspires when it utters the word God” (“The Pangs of Cleansing”).1

For this reason, as good as our image of God may be, even if it is a God-given image, we must not mistake it for God himself. And because no image can convey to us God’s totality, it cannot give us the power to comprehend fully his purposes or his judgments. We do know, of course, more than enough. We know what he wants us to know: that we should do justice and love mercy, for example, that we should worship only him, that our lives come to judgment, that we are unimaginably loved. But even the purest faith does not justify us in speaking for God on subjects about which only he knows his mind—subjects like which of us will be saved and which will not, or how near to God one may go on a path different from our own. That is why we are told to judge not lest we be judged. Because, not being God, we are fallible, and our judgment, unlike his, is imperfect. Therefore, the true theist is a humble theist. He knows that to have a true path to God is not to have the only path to God. As a great Hasidic tzaddik, the Seer of Lublin, put it, what kind of God would it be who could be served in only one way?

Finally, even to apply the word “existence” to God is to reduce his full reality. As Rav Kook says, “whatever we ascribe to the term existence is immeasurably remote from the divine. . . . The divine is the activating influence on existence and is, therefore, obviously above existence” (“The Pangs of Cleansing”).2 This brings us back to the atheists. In arguing against the existence of God, whatever their intentions, the atheists tell a partial truth: namely, there is no such God as any of us can picture. For a God whose existence we could imagine would not be God, the source of existence itself. This being so, who are we to say that his path of negation may not lead even the atheist toward God?

Now, having defended the atheists, I have to add that of course their negative images of God too are limited. To say that “existence” is too small a term to be applied to God is not to say there is no God. Atheists help to purify our faith by reminding us that all our images of God fail to convey the fullness of divine reality. But the atheist still has to choose between believing in that infinite, absolute, unfathomable divine reality, a reality with the power to reveal itself to us, and believing in nothingness. If the atheist’s rejecting is done in the name of a search for truth, he may well find God at the end of his search. If his rejecting is merely a way to exalt his own ego, he will be left with nothing but his ego, and therefore, eventually, with nothing—that is unless God’s mercy intervenes. But since we are not God ourselves, the atheist’s eternal fate, like our own, remains a mystery. For him, as for ourselves, we can only hope and pray for the best. I think we are also permitted to argue with him, but only so long as we don’t permit ourselves to sit in judgment on his soul.

I will conclude with two Hasidic stories about atheism and faith. The first story comes to me from the great tzaddik Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav via Elie Wiesel. It is about getting the facts but missing the point. I should warn you that the meaning of the story is in the story, not in any twist at the end.

“The king had sent a letter to a wise but skeptical man, who, in his faraway province, refused to accept it. He was one of those men who think too much, who complicate their lives by complicating small things. He couldn’t understand, not in the slightest, what the king might want of him: ‘Why would the sovereign, so powerful and so rich, address himself to me, who am less than nothing? Because he takes me for a philosopher? There are more important ones. Could there be another reason? If so, what reason?’

“Unable to answer these question, he preferred to believe the letter a misunderstanding. Worse: a fraud. Worse yet: a practical joke. ‘Your king,’ he said to the messenger, ‘does not exist.’ But the messenger insisted: ‘I am here, and here is the letter; isn’t that proof enough?’—‘The letter proves nothing at all; besides, I haven’t read it. And by the way, who gave it to you? The king in person?’—‘No,’ confessed the messenger. ‘It was given to me by a royal page. In his name.’—‘Are you sure of that? And how can you be sure that it comes from the reigning sovereign? Have you ever seen him?’—‘Never. My rank does not permit or warrant it.’—‘Then how do you know that the king is king? You see? You don’t know any more than I.’

“And without unsealing the letter, the sage and the messenger decided to learn the truth once and for all. They would go to the end of the world, they would question the very last of mortals, but they would know.

“At the marketplace, they accosted a soldier: ‘Who are you and what do you do?’—‘I am a soldier by trade and I am in the king’s service.’—‘What king?’—‘The one to whom we swore allegiance; this land is his. We are all here to serve him.’—‘Do you know what he looks like?’—‘No.’—‘Then you have never seen him?’—‘Never.’

“The two companions burst into laughter: ‘Look at him! This man in uniform insists upon serving someone he has never seen and will never see!’

“Further on, they met an officer: yes, he would willingly die for the king; no, he had never had the honor of seeing him, neither from close by nor from afar.

“A general: same questions, same answers, clear and precise. He, too, thinks of nothing but to serve the king, he lives only for him and by him; and yet, even though he is a general, he cannot boast of ever having set his eyes upon the king.

“‘You see?’ says the skeptical sage to the messenger. ‘People are naïve and credulous, and rather foolish; they live a lie and are afraid of the truth.’”3

The second story is this:4

An atheist and a tzaddik were carrying on a long and complicated debate about the existence of God. As usual, neither was having any success in convincing the other. All of a sudden, the tzaddik became terror-stricken. “My God,” he said, “what if what you say is true?” His momentary terror passed, but the atheist was so frightened by the look in the tzaddik’s eyes that he was instantly converted.

1. Moses Maimonides, The Guide for the Perplexed, trans. M. Friedlander (New York: Dover, 1956), p. 85; St. Thomas Aquinas, Philosophical Texts, ed. Thomas Gilby (New York: Galaxy, 1960), p. 86; Dante Alighieri, Paradiso, trans. John D. Sinclair (New York: Galaxy, 1961), p. 485; Abraham Isaac Kook, The Lights of Penitence [etc.], trans. Ben Zion Bokser (New York: Paulist Press, 1978), p. 261.
2. Kook, p. 266–67.
3. Elie Wiesel, Souls on Fire: Portraits and Legends of Hasidic Masters, trans. Marion Wiesel (New York: Vintage, 1973), pp. 172–74.
4. I cannot find the source for this tale, which I retell here from memory. If anyone knows where it has been printed, I would appreciate your posting a comment with that information.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

"And is he a man to encounter Tybalt?"

(For Sean, Chase, and all my former students now serving our country in the military.)

Last week I was subjected to a rapper’s hyperbolical and foul-mouthed diatribe against U.S. Military recruitment on high school campuses. The rapper made a variety of false claims, the central ones being a) that a cynical U.S. Government uses false pretenses to trick American teenagers into joining the U.S. Military, b) that these duped teenagers are sent to foreign countries to kill innocent families and to be killed, and c) that if only we all say no to campus recruitment, military service, and war, there will be no wars.

The rap song was applauded by a number of seniors who attend a comfortable college prep school in a wealthy and relatively safe neighborhood and who look forward to entering good colleges, graduate schools, and professional careers without the help of the military. Of the military’s part in ensuring their ability to pursue their careers under the rule of law and free from persecution they seem less than fully aware. I found myself hoping that they would remember their history before we are all condemned to repeat it.

Several days later, I had to pick up a book at the local upscale mall where many of these same seniors often shop. There I saw a clerk with a huge red-and-green spiked Mohawk haircut, another clerk with metal-studded black leather clothing and a metal-studded face, a bevy of barely-teen girls in “goth” costume giggling pseudo-witchcraft cant about evil spirits, and hundreds of people between the ages of twelve and thirty wandering into shops to buy overpriced trinkets and clothing imprinted with cartoon images of skulls and monsters.

According to the pop voice of teenage rebellion, we are to believe that war is never a defensive action against villains who wish to oppress or destroy us and other civilized peoples, that if only imperialistic corporate America would behave itself, the Stalinist and jihadist dictatorships of the world would magically shrivel up and blow away. At the same time, America (by this reasoning) having no real enemies, we seem to need instead to cultivate imaginary enemies, like those pictured in the video games, movies, tattoos, 35-dollar T-shirts, and extra-terrestrial costumes that constitute the lucrative entertainments of the malls.

So I ask myself: Is this a culture to encounter the likes of Osama bin Laden or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad?

Romeo did not wake up to the real threat of Tybalt until Tybalt killed Romeo’s friend Mercutio. Mercutio was killed partly because Tybalt was angry and vengeful and partly because he himself was equally rash. But Mercutio died also because Romeo, blissfully in love himself, thought he could prevent others’ violence by being nice. Tybalt stabbed Mercutio under Romeo’s peace-seeking arm.

To be sure, the quarrel between the Montagues and the Capulets was frivolous and unnecessary. But that didn’t make Tybalt any the less deadly. And though Shakespeare, like our rapper, also hated futile and avoidable quarrels, he recognized, as the rapper does not, that not all wars are rooted in such quarrels. Some wars are caused by the evil ambitions of men like Macbeth and Richard III and need to be fought in the name of justice and of that true peace which is not merely appeasement.

We all hate war and would rather avoid it. But there are wars of villainous aggression and wars of legitimate defense as well as wars based on frivolous quarrels. The refusal to distinguish between them invites conquest and catastrophe.

Plenty of young people in our society die for pleasures promised by drugs, alcohol, promiscuous sex, mechanical velocity, and street-gang revenge of the sort indulged in by Tybalt and Mercutio. Where are the rappers crying over their deaths? Where are the rappers praising the real courage and sacrifice of the men and women who risk their lives to defend our freedom to say whatever we like about the military and to buy and wear whatever we like at the mall?

A society whose young men are taught that no honorable common cause is worth dying for is not likely to put an end to war. It is far more likely either to collapse of its own self-indulgence or to be overrun by a society whose young men are willing to die—and to kill—for the worst causes of all.