Tag Archives: Voltaire

Mortals Die, and are Laid Low

tumblr_ma8azfhZEg1rgpruxo3_r3_1280[1]A couple years ago in a course that I was team-teaching with two other colleagues, the final seminar text of the semester was Shakespeare’s King Lear. One of my teaching colleagues, an accomplished Shakespeare scholar, described the play on the syllabus as simply “the greatest play ever.” I love Shakespeare and find his plays more insightful about human nature and the human condition than any other texts (certainly more insightful than any philosophical tomes I have read), but had not read this particular tragedy in its entirety since I was an undergraduate the age of our current eighteen and nineteen year old freshmen. The play blew me away, disturbed me, and made me wonder whether we perhaps should have sent our students off into the summer with something slightly less dark.

King Lear pushes to the limit a hypothesis that has a long and complicated pedigree: We live in a universe that is malign, at the very least indifferent, and human life within this universe is brutal, wretched, and meaningless. As various nasty and morally awful characters—including Lear’s two older daughters—apparently prosper from their rejection of their father, those characters with even a shred of dignity, honor, or love—including Lear’s youngest daughter—are rejected and ultimately destroyed. By the end of the play, the stage is littered with the bodies of both the good and the bad, while a handful of dazed survivors are left to pick up the pieces. Naked in a driving storm in the middle of a Scottish heath, Lear rages that human beings are nothing but “poor, bare forked animals,” living on a “great stage of fools.” Lear demands an answer to the question “Is man no more than this?” The blinded Gloucester despairingly directs his accusations heavenward:

As flies to wanton boys are we to th’gods; They kill us for their sport.imagesCAOCS0RP

And have a nice day.

King Lear took me back to a Holy Saturday liturgy a few years ago. At our Episcopal church, our rector Marsue decided for the first time in her many years as a priest to do the Holy Saturday liturgy. Holy-Saturday-e1364654989214[1]It’s a tough sell to get people to church on any Saturday except for a wedding or funeral, particularly during Holy Week when the most dedicated may have already been in church two or three times in the previous few days. I was one of only a few people present; if any of us had possessed the presence of mind to check the prayer book before coming, we probably wouldn’t have bothered. It’s a very dark liturgy. Jesus is dead in the tomb, the altar is stripped bare, and everything in the rubric is intended to get you notjob[1] to think about what is coming the next day. A central line in one of the prayers that day was “In the midst of life we are in death” Most striking that afternoon, however, was the following from the book of Job:

A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last . . . For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease . . . But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep.

These lines would have been appropriate in the mouths of any number of characters in King Lear, but they predate Shakespeare by thousands of years. The earliest text my interdisciplinary class studied this academic year, the gilandenki[1]Epic of Gilgamesh, is infused with similar energies—fear of death, as well as impotence in the face of forces we cannot control.

In the middle of Easter season, it is easy for Christians to immediately address these dark realities with the story of divine suffering and redemption that lies at the heart of Christian belief. And that is the message—God has overcome darkness and death, a victory that we are the beneficiaries of.  Yet it is so easy for this powerful story to become little more than a superficial panacea for all the darkness and loss that surrounds each of us, a truism that can blind us to an otherwise inescapable truth: mortals die, and are laid low. And during its short duration, human life is often filled with nothing but suffering, pain, and meaninglessness.

The great eighteenth-century essayist and philosopher Voltaire once provocatively wrote that “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.”voltaire_if_god_did_not_exist_necessary_to_invent_postcard-r747d414000d64546b6a280ed3f476a5d_vgbaq_8byvr_210[1] This statement shook up a number of Voltaire’s contemporaries, leading many to imagine that any person who could write such a thing seriously must be an atheist. The statement remains provocative, and it is clear from his body of work that whatever Voltaire might have been, he was not a traditional religious believer in any sense of the word. But with the apparent meaninglessness of human existence and reality in view, Voltaire’s famous claim is absolutely true. There is something about the darkest and most sobering parts of human reality that cry out for, actually demand, a response. The human epitaph cannot be “Life’s a bitch, and then you die.”

All sorts of responses, ranging from religious through philosophical and literary to political, have been offered over the centuries, responses that often conflict with each other and even more frequently fail to take the fundamental problem on squarely. Which of these stories is true? More importantly, how can we know if any of them are true? How can we be sure that these stories are anything more than a collection of tunes human beings have written to whistle in the dark until the night overwhelms them? I submit that we cannot be sure. Yet billions of people have been willing to shape their lives, to stake their very existence at least virtually, sometimes literally, on the truth of one or more of these stories. Simone_Weil-11[1]Why? Because there is something in the human heart that has to believe them, something that has to hope. And it is that very longing and hope that is perhaps most convincing. As Simone Weil reminds us, “if we ask our Father for bread, he will not give us a stone.”

The third and final portion of Handel’s Messiah,handels-messiah[1] immediately following the “Hallelujah Chorus,” begins with “I Know That My Redeemer Liveth,” a soaring, spectacularly beautiful soprano solo setting of the following text from Job, with a concluding sentiment from First Corinthians:

I know that my redeemer liveth, and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth;

And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

For now is Christ risen from the dead, the first fruits of them that sleep.

From the depths of despair, literally from the middle of a pile of ashes, Job clings to a hopeful story, that there is a transcendent and triumphant divine response to human incapacity, despair, and hopelessness. It’s a wonderful story. How can I not believe it? I hope and pray that it is true. It had better be.

The Designer God Project

Jean-Antoine Houdon ~ Voltaire[1]Voltaire once said that if God did not exist, we would have to invent him. In truth, we invent God all the time, often with seeming disregard as to whether the God we have invented actually exists or not. Anne Lamott suggests that we can be pretty sure that we have created God in our own image if it turns out that God likes all the people and things that we like and dislikes all the people and things that we dislike. So how am I, or how is any God-believer, supposed to tell whether the God I believe in exists in reality, or exists simply as a figment of my self-obsessed imagination? I’m having the opportunity to explore these issues with my students early this semester, and the process has been both dynamic and illuminating.

The texts for an early seminar not long ago in the interdisciplinary program I both teach in and direct was the first twenty-five chapters of Genesis and the first twenty-four of Exodus.gen-ex[1] It is often a challenge to get freshmen to discuss anything in seminar in the early weeks of their first semester; getting a bunch of eighteen-year-olds, most of whom are products of twelve years of parochial education, to talk about the Bible is even more difficult. But I’ve been doing this for a while and have a lot of tricks. After assuring them that no one has ever been struck dead in any of my classes for speaking honestly about their reactions to what they’ve read in a “sacred text,” a few brave souls began to admit that the God of these Old Testament stories is quite different from the God they had been taught to believe in. This God frequently seems insecure, petty, unfair, and arbitrary—what’s up with that??

After a few minutes, it occurred to me that a thought experiment was in order. I said “Okay, if you don’t like the God of Genesis and Exodus, let’s work for a while on what we do want God to be and to act like. Let’s create a ‘Designer God’—you get to create God from scratch. Write in your notebooks for ten minutes on the following topic: Any God worth believing in will have the following characteristics. Come up with three characteristics and explain why any God worth believing in would have to have them. Go.”

After the writing portion of the thought experiment, the students compared notes and found that the God they had just designed individually was pretty similar from person to person. As they offered their favored divine characteristics, I wrote the list on the board:

Any God worth believing in will have the following characteristics:

Forgiving

Trustworthy

Understanding

Fair/Just

Loving (at least to those who deserve to be loved)

Powerful

Dependable

All-Knowing

Not a micromanager

As we discussed selected characteristics on the list, a number of issues were revealed.

Fairness and justice: The biggest problem the students had with the Old Testament God is that this is a God who plays favorites. 172663381_640[1]Any God worth believing in should treat everyone the same. “Why?” I asked. Do all of you treat everyone the same? Do you like the seven billion plus people in the world the same? Do you even like the few dozen people who you know really well the same? They had to admit that they didn’t. “Then why do you expect God to do something that you make no attempt to do?” I wondered. The students struggled for an answer other than that God is God and we’re not—the divine should be held to a higher standard than we are, although where that standard would come from other than God they weren’t sure.

images[6]Love and forgiveness: At first, the idea was that any God worth believing in should be loving. Period. “Even mass murderers, drug dealers and child abusers?” I asked. Well, several thought, we need to qualify this love thing a bit. God should love those who deserve it, or those who believe in God, but not everyone indiscriminately. Love that is equally spread everywhere without qualification is cheapened somehow. God’s love is transactional, in other words. I do this, God responds with love.

Power: Omnipotence turned out to be a big one—no God worth believing in is wimpy or weak. “But God in Genesis and Exodus is powerful and has no problem exhibiting that power on a regular basis. And you didn’t like thatomnipotent[1],” I reminded them. As it turned out, Designer God should be powerful but should not be all about using that power all the time. “When is it appropriate for God to use that divine power?” “Whenever I or my group is in trouble or needs something” was the most common response. So you want God to be like a 9-1-1 operator or a lifeline on “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” That didn’t sound right, but maybe so. That led to another Designer God must-have trait.

Dependability: God needs to “be there” was the way that many students put it. “Dependable” and “trustworthy” were synonyms in this discussion. “Being there” means on call, though—the students clearly were not interested in a proactive God that demanded much of them. When things are going badly, listen up and answer my prayers. When things are going well, leave me the hell alone. No-Micromanage-150x150[1]The students were largely in agreement when I reframed this trait as a requirement that God not be a micro-manager. An overall plan for my life is fine, but I want to have a great deal of choice in terms of how I choose to find out about and pursue that plan (even freedom not to follow that plan if I so choose).

As we entered the last half hour of seminar, I asked everyone to take a mental step back and look at the list of Designer God characteristics that we had been discussing. 1834269-a-macro-of-santa-claus-face[1]Truth be told, they looked like the characteristics of a combination of a non-interfering Santa Claus and my students’ parents on a good day. Or the personality traits of the pleasant, vanilla God they had been taught to believe in. The question to ask, I suggested “What evidence is there that the God you have just designed actually exists?” Is there any evidence that these are the character traits of the divine, or are these simply a projection of what we want to believe in? A careful and clear consideration of the world we actually live in reveals that for every piece of evidence supporting the existence of the Designer God, an equally obvious piece of evidence suggests either the Designer God’s non-existence, or—perhaps more challenging—that whatever God is, God is something quite mysterious, exhibiting characteristics not on our list, and well outside our comfort zones. puppet[1]The Designer God Project was a two-hour exercise in creating God in our own image. And maybe that’s where most of us would like to stay. We’re like the Israelites in Exodus who get the shit scared out of them when God actually talks to them directly. They are very uncomfortable with the noise, the lightening, the fire, and the obvious power. Their response? “Moses, you go talk to God and tell us what God wants. We can deal with you, but don’t want to deal with that.”

The writer of Hebrews suggests that it is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of a living God. Something created in my own image is far more comfortable, predictable, and manageable. Forrest-Gump1[1]The uncomfortable thing about adventuring with a real God rather than hanging out with a projection of myself is that it opens the door to continual growth and surprise and blows the doors off my comfort zone. Walking with God is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get.