"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.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Afterlife according to Judaism

One of our local papers has a column whose author attends a religious service at a different house of worship each week. The column is devoted to describing and assessing that service and its leader. It is more a hopping from spoke to spoke on the great wheel rather than a pursuit of any particular spoke to the center. But as a superficial depiction of the varieties of religious experience in our city it can be informative and intriguing.

Last Yom Kippur the author attended evening services at a Conservative synagogue and wrote about it for the column. A week later, in a letter to the editor, a reader asked why the rabbi had not been asked one of the columnist’s usual questions: “What happens when we die?”

The columnist replied to the letter the next week by saying that he had been unable to speak with the rabbi after the service but had called him on the phone. According to the writer, the rabbi had said that “we don’t know,” that “Judaism has a range of beliefs” which he then listed, and that “it’s really wide open.” Among the rabbi’s list of actual beliefs held in Judaism was the belief “that once you’re dead, you’re dead, and there’s nothing afterwards.”

I am neither a rabbi nor a theologian. However, I considered it worth sending the following letter to the editor:

‘I found misleading [the] response to the question “What happens when we die?” quoted . . . in last week’s Letters column.

‘It is true, as [the rabbi] says, that “Judaism has a range of beliefs,” but “once you’re dead, you’re dead, and there’s nothing afterwards” is not one of them. No doubt there are Jews who have departed so far from traditional Judaism as to believe this. However, it has not been one of Judaism’s “range of beliefs” since ancient times when that opinion of the Sadducees was repudiated (Talmud, Sanhedrin 90a–91b).

‘The rabbi’s “simple answer” (“we don’t know”) is correct so far as the details of the afterlife are concerned, which, in any religion, must be imagined based on faith rather than knowledge. But missing from his response was any mention of Judaism’s unwavering assertion that all things, including the condition of our souls in the afterlife, lie in God’s hands. Whatever particular images of life after death Judaism does have—resurrection, purgation, temporary hell, reincarnation, the world to come—Judaism teaches that we, like everything in the universe, exist within the will of the Creator.

‘Hence, it cannot be that even in death we could fall into total nothingness out of the mind of God, which, being eternal, must hold us eternally if it holds us now. “There’s nothing afterward” is therefore not a possibility that Judaism (as distinct from doubting individuals) admits.

‘In case . . . the letter writer is more than merely curious but, like many of us, is seeking some authority for hope, he may appreciate knowing that in traditional Judaism, among the blessings recited three times every day, is one which acknowledges that God “brings the dead to life.” The Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a) also records the following exchange: To a skeptic who asked “If even the living die, shall the dead live?” Rabbi Gebiha son of Pesisa replied, “if what did not live lives now, surely what lives now will live again.”’

To my letter I will add the following brief commentary:

There are certain limits beyond which the human mind cannot go. We cannot actually imagine ultimate realities like infinite space, or eternity, or the cause of the universe, or the true nature of God, or the true state of our souls apart from our bodies. All our images of such concepts are dependent on imaginations fed by experience in bodies in the finite world of time and space.

Hence all images of the afterlife—nothingness; reincarnation; the wheel of karma; conversations with Socrates; hell, purgatory, or heaven; a new heaven and a new earth; mystical union with God; absorption into physical nature; absorption into the Tao; or my teacher’s wonderful notion that we spend eternity working out the consequences of all the alternative choices we did not make in life—are of necessity speculations to which the will may or may not be moved to attach itself in an act of faith.

The important thing to stress is this: the common modern belief in the nothingness of the soul after death is also a leap of faith. Those who hold that any doctrine of life after death is only wishful thinking because the soul is only a temporary function of the behavior of matter organized into a human body—an idea Plato addressed and attempted to refute in his dialogue called Phaedo—might want to ask why the cosmic order would arrange itself into the particular subtle complexity that makes wishful thinking itself possible and life after death a desirable wish.

Of course it is possible to answer “chance” or “accident” or “the laws of physics.” But these too are leaps of faith in concepts whose essence the human mind cannot penetrate. (Why should the laws of physics be what they are?) It is an illusion to claim that the belief that “there’s nothing afterwards” is any more reasonable or empirically founded than the others.

The idea that whatever is not physical does not exist, or that whatever physically exists does so by physical laws or chance only, is not a conclusion based on evidence but a premise based on belief. As such, it can claim no more authority in correct human reasoning than belief in God, divine purpose, and immortality. It is no more reasonable to imagine that we wish for heaven because the laws of physics exist than it is to imagine that the laws of physics exist so that we can wish for heaven.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Proposition 8 and the Meaning of Marriage

I believe in equal justice under the law for same-sex couples. But more is being demanded. We are told that we must call same-sex unions “marriage” and that not to do so is discriminatory injustice.

Since California law already secures for same-sex couples all legal rights enjoyed by married couples, the desire to redefine marriage must arise from the longing for people with a same-sex orientation to feel socially indistinguishable from people with an opposite-sex orientation. Not equality but identity is desired for same-sex couples by those who oppose Proposition 8. This desire is understandable, and in some ways I sympathize. Who would want any relative or friend to be deprived of something so profoundly meaningful as marriage? Nonetheless, given our natures, it is an impossible and ultimately an undesirable goal.

The goal is impossible because sex and sexual orientation matter. They do not justify injustice, but neither are they irrelevant when it comes to marriage. Sexuality is so rooted in us that the differences between same-sex and opposite-sex orientation, like the differences between male and female, cannot be willed into insignificance without violence to our inner lives. We might want to re-order our society to eliminate all reproductive, legal, social, emotional, and psychic differences between the sexes and between sexual orientations. But to pretend that we can actually do so is to sacrifice truth to wishful thinking. We may fear and hate, or accept and celebrate, the powerful mystery of such differences, but short of remaking humanity in the manner of Huxley’s Brave New World, we cannot eliminate it.

The goal is undesirable because marriage is not merely the name for a set of variable historical phenomena. Marriage as defined by the wisdom of civilized traditions is an ideal, an image of the best, most perfect way that human beings may live in the physical body in the world. It is an image of the uniting of all parts of the self by uniting the self in a relationship with another who is both similar and opposite. My teacher used to say that all creation comes by the union of opposites. She meant not only the union of the opposite sexes in reproduction, but of opposite qualities (light/dark, tension/relaxation, movement/stasis, etc.) in works of art, opposite experiences (comedy/tragedy, day/night, puzzlement/enlightenment, etc.) in the mental life, opposite characteristics (daring/careful, rational/passionate, tender/strong, etc.) in human relationships.

Marriage is the archetypal union of opposites: of yin and yang, of heart and mind, of body and soul, of past and future, of temporality and permanence, of the personal and the social, of all that we mean by femininity and masculinity (however mixed in particular selves), of sexual desire and satisfaction, of physical need and help, in the union of two who love one another as individuals physically, emotionally, and rationally, and as potentially fruitful representatives of the past and future of any community. It is the greatest example of the principle of sublimation, in the pre-Freudian sense of the word, of the raising up of all that is lower and including it in the higher. It is an incarnation of the sacramental principle of life, according to which it is man’s function to embrace the here-and-now moment and to hallow it.

Homosexuality as a fact of the psyche is a human variation to be acknowledged and accepted and, as an aspect of the individuals we love, embraced. But only heterosexuality makes possible the realization of the potential in marriage.

To many, the above image of marriage will seem like old-fashioned balderdash. That is precisely the problem. The truth of this image of marriage is opaque to those whose imaginations rule out the sacramental in life as purely imaginary. In order to make marriage available to same-sex relationships, they redefine it as a property agreement or a merely personal choice, reducing it from a universal ideal to a social tool of the desiring self.

Yet even such secularists believe in the sacred without knowing they do. They believe in the sacredness of equality and of emotion. Raised to believe in the unlimited reach of human reason and in the unquestioned validity of natural feelings, they cannot see why marriage cannot apply to same-sex couples, since it is nothing but a practical social construct built either on the ownership of property (as reason says) or on the personal desire for love and companionship (as the feelings say). Under these assumptions, the position is perfectly understandable, as is the belief that any opposition to it could only arise from injustice (bad reason) or bigotry (bad feelings).

But if equality and good feelings are sacred, then so are truth and humility. If it is wrong to persecute minorities, then it is wrong to pretend a lie. C.S. Lewis has written (in The Abolition of Man [Touchstone, 1996]), “For the wise men of old the cardinal problem had been how to conform the soul to reality, and the solution had been knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science [and, we may add, the effort to redefine marriage, along with many another modern movement] the problem is how to subdue reality to the wishes of men” (p. 83). (The abolition of slavery and of Jim Crow laws was an example of the former, an attempt to conform man’s behavior to virtue. The effort to redefine marriage is an example of the latter, the attempt to subdue reality to man’s wishes. Hence the commonly repeated analogy of same-sex couples to victims of racial prejudice is a false one. The actual legal rights of same-sex couples having been secured, the “right” to “marriage” is a chimera.)

Conversely, if reality is to be subdued to the wishes of men, why should the subduers care so much about the word once they have claimed the thing? If marriage is not sacred but is only a name for however people happen to behave erotically at any given moment in history, then why should the right to the word be so fervently demanded for same-sex couples? Where has all the diversity training gone? To foster diversity truly would be to acknowledge that same-sex relationships are something different from marriage and to embrace that difference without prejudice. But here the diversity-mongers balk. Why do they care so much about the word “marriage” that any distinction between same-sex and opposite-sex relationships becomes intolerable to them?

The answer is that those who support same-sex “marriage” want it both ways: They want marriage to mean something profound, universal, redemptive, and sublime so that participation in it by same-sex couples might be hallowed. At the same time they argue that there is nothing sacred about marriage so that participation in it by same-sex couples might be totally accepted. They want to reap the benefits of marriage in society by denaturing them in the mind, to eat that cake and have it too.

Of course it cannot be done, and so arises the impulse to redefine out of existence what cannot be enjoyed. What marches as passion for equality—emotionally genuine, perhaps, but intellectually spurious—begins in envy. Instead of articulating an ideal form of union in which same-sex couples could sublimate their distinct kind of relationship, the impulse abroad is to destroy an ideal to which only opposite-sex couples can aspire. It is sour grapes raised to the level of social revolution. As Aesop might say, it is easy (or rather imperative) to despise what you cannot have.

To be sure, if the sacred ideal of marriage is abandoned by our society, it will not be only—or even mainly—because of the movement to call same-sex couples “married.” Fiercer enemies of marriage have long been at work.

The invention of the contraceptive pill and the conversion of marriage from a combined spiritual, social, and personal institution into nothing more than a “relationship of two people who love each other” have fundamentally reconstructed the mental landscape in which marriage takes place.

The consequences are perfectly familiar. The acceptability of pre- and extra-marital sex has increased. The divorce rate has increased. The numbers of unwed mothers and irresponsible fathers have increased. The rate of reproduction among the beneficiaries of “higher education” (whose institutions have threatened population explosion and preached careerism while denigrating marriage) has declined. The young are systematically misled about the negative consequences of divorcing “sexual activity” from expectations for marriage. The pretense that gender is irrelevant to home, workplace, and church has constituted a de facto war against the differences between the sexes out of which the meaning of marriage arises. Extreme feminists characterize marriage as institutionalized rape.

All of these trends arise from the intellectual falsification of actual human experience, the reduction of the profound mysteries of sex, love, reproduction, nature, and society to matters of equality and power only. The sacred ideal of marriage is thus under siege from many directions.

Finally, we are told—as if it were a rational argument—that we must accept same-sex “marriage” because it will soon be universally approved and all who resist the change are headed for the dustbin of history. Perhaps. But the inevitability of a change does not make the change necessarily a good one. History provides plenty of examples of changes that, to put it mildly, have not meant progress.

My argument is not that the concept of marriage will not change but that, if it does, a true ideal will be sacrificed for a false idea. Future generations may grow up imagining that there is no difference between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. So far as society is concerned, they will be right, but only because marriage will have become a thing of the past.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

To all Veterans

Thank you, Veterans, for your service to the nation and to every one of us.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

On Proposition 8

Some well-meaning people have been filled with passionate intensity in trying to defeat the now passed Proposition 8, which, in response to a finding of the California Supreme Court, sought to amend the California Constitution by defining marriage as between a man and a woman and thereby removing the Court’s argument that the Constitution implied a right to same-sex marriage.

As an example of the heat that the issue has generated, I have received the following comment from a former student of mine, who berates me for linking to Richard Kirk’s blog (“Musing with a Hammer”) at mine. My student writes: “Shame on you . . . for linking to Kirk's page, which prominently displays a heinously ignorant, shortsighted, indefensible diatribe condemning gay marriage for its lack of a contribution to reproduction. Fill the orphanages Kirk. And continue to attach your name, Rap, to a viewpoint that represents misled intellectualism and blunt hate. Bravo.”

This attack only underlines Richard Kirk’s point about the overheated ad hominem attacks of some Prop. 8 opponents. In fact Kirk’s post is neither ignorant, nor shortsighted, nor indefensible, nor is it a diatribe, nor does it condemn, nor does it represent “misled intellectualism” or “blunt [or any other kind of] hate.” These accusations are absurd, a pertinent example of how easily the political disagreement of those who pretend to be for equality and fairness may decline into irrational insult.

Kirk’s argument is perfectly rational given the assumption that the millennia-old institution of marriage is a valid social form. One may choose to reject that assumption, but holding it is no evidence of either irrationality or hate. Neither in person nor on paper nor online is Richard Kirk either unreasonable or bigoted against anyone. And unlike my student, Kirk has actually worked as a social worker among real orphans and hence speaks with some authority about the effects of the lack of mother or father or both in the upbringing of children. By contrast, the abstract orphanages that glide so easily off my student’s keyboard are a function entirely of polemic.

I am honored to link at my own blog that of so passionately moral a thinker and so careful and honest a writer as Richard Kirk. I urge my readers to read his post called “Hate Thy Political Neighbor” at Musing with a Hammer together with the comments it has generated and his responses to them. You may then decide for yourselves whether or not my student’s own diatribe is called for.

It is unfortunate that, in order to defend the (in my opinion untenable) idea of same-sex marriage, opponents of Prop. 8 have had recourse to characterizing the legalization of same-sex marriage as a civil rights issue and the proponents of the proposition as bigots. In doing so, the partisans of this change, which was confirmed by the legal opinion of four members of the California Supreme Court, have tapped the fervor of all those who support the rights of same-sex couples to be free of persecution, to live undisturbed with whom they choose, to provide health care, visit the sick, and bequeath property as they wish. The fervor itself is not ignoble, nor are these unreasonable rights to demand. But California law already secures all of them. (See Domestic Partnership in California in Wikipedia.) Hence the argument is really about whether four judges, or even a majority of citizens, can force the entire society and its future to repudiate so ancient and fundamental an institution of civilization as marriage by altering the definition of the word.

I have heard it argued by opponents of Prop. 8 that the word “marriage” is merely a term for a civil contract and need not imply anything about the genders of the partners. This argument is simply false, a product of ignorant wishful thinking if not of intentional misrepresentation. A society may want to legalize or even consecrate same-sex unions, but there can be no etymological justification for using the word “marriage” to describe them.

The words “marriage” and “matrimony” are synonyms. The former is from the Latin maritus, meaning husband, from mas, maris, a male. The latter is from the Latin matrimonium, marriage, from mater, mother. Since ancient times, both words have meant the union of man and woman as husband and wife. With Proposition 8 the California voters have voted to preserve the correct and ancient meaning of the word “marriage” and nothing else.

There may have been some anti-gay bigots who voted for the proposition and some anti-religious bigots who voted against it, but no civil rights have been limited, no prejudice perpetuated, no bigotry enshrined in the California Constitution by its passage. In a future post I may address the underlying causes of the passionate attempt to alter our shared language in this way. For now, I simply want to maintain that one may have supported Prop. 8 without being a bigot.

Finally, even if there were rational arguments to be made for altering the denotation of a word that has retained the same essential meaning for several thousand years, no sign of such an argument is evidenced by the words, tone, and attitude of the attack quoted above. Such spluttering, even in the name of combating injustice, whether real or illusory, not only leads to the maligning of men of good will but poisons rational discourse. Let us all calm down and try to be both honest and clear, even—or rather, especially—when we disagree. Not only we but our society and our world will be the better for every effort we make in that direction.