Well, if this is true (if a bit unsophisticated, I think – swap religion for belief in transcendence and I’ll bet you’d be closer to the point), I might have to reassess my skepticism/cynicism. For our purposes here, let’s assume we reject the Bearded-Man-in-the-clouds set, the evangelical set, and pretty much every incidence of institutionalized religiosity we’re familiar with (including the increasingly organized atheists and their religious rituals) – still, is there value endemic to belief in transcendental noumenon/phenomenon? I’m especially interested in the answer to this question from an individualist perspective. Is the introspective pursuit of communication with a transcendent self a healthy and productive one? Does humanness require belief directed at unknowables?
My interest stems from an ongoing personal distaste for nihilism [for a musical equivalent to the moral realities of the phenomenon, see here] and it’s proliferation EVERYWHERE. Referring back to the assumptions from the article from above, nihilism rejects human nature, as far as I can tell. It’s a dehumanizing agent. Nihilism is, quite possibly, a reaction to frustration with the status quo: As inequity becomes more and more visible, humans have more and more data at their disposal, “meaningful” and dignified work evaporates, wealth amassment grows, and lifestyles at the top improve. Why not simply say, “fuck it”?
All the tried-and-true modes of forgetfulness or distraction are wearing out, right? We seem to have turned our backs on group-based, formulaic means of transcendence as we’re becoming more secular – interestingly enough, at a faster pace among the working classes than the upper middle – while, according to the Norwegians, we’ve lost our taste for, and grasp of, the sublime found in fine arts.
So, in a world where nothing is holy or particularly beautiful and fairness just doesn’t seem attainable, where does one turn? Nihilism, I think. Recently, I’ve been wondering how I might be able to avoid notions of nihilism in my own life. A big question, I think, but one worth examining. I’m basically searching for nothing less than a means to ensure a meaningful existence. So, since avoiding nihilism is the task here, I’m seeking something to believe in.
As I began my search for a method of overcoming the mundane, quotidian reality of our contemporary world – a world in which everything is possible and nothing is likely to change – I realized organized religion seemed an ersatz vehicle for transcendental exploration. What can you glean from such well-traveled, dead-horse-beaten paths? The church, the temple, services – for me, each offer the excitement of a bike ride with training wheels. There’s no risk there.
What I’m interested in here, specifically, is belief itself. It very well could be argued that belief is the defining characteristic of humanity. It is the precursor to knowledge, is it not?
I’m willing to wager that belief, per se, isn’t a bad thing for a person to hold on to or to build a life around. An uncertain certainty, or knowledge without a concrete basis in fact – belief is faith without the inherent acknowledgment of the limitations of the existential self (R. Niebuhr’s definition of faith, paraphrased) – and herein lies the distinction between my personally prescribed program of religiosity and organized, axiomatic religion.
Faith, according to Reinhold Niebuhr, is attained in three steps: 1) as assensus, or achieving a sense of belief in a statement or set of statements, 2) fidelitas, or faithfulness and loyalty to a relationship (whether that be with God or another entity such as the one I propose later in this space), and 3) fiducia, or a trust that is diametrically opposed to the phenomenon of anxiety.
So faith, as we tend to know it, doesn’t work for me because, in a world that’s beset with fatiguing moral codes, diminishing returns on human creativity, and harsh and uneven circumstantial human welfare, vis-à-vis the many for the benefit of the few, I find it incredibly difficult to trust anything or anyone that exists outside the self. We do, however, still live in a world inhabited by wonder – the unlikely and impossible take place each day – so, knowing that, I’m reticent to embrace any existential limits whatsoever (other than mortality, itself), including those imposed upon the self.
Could I possibly come to terms with my own inner creationism? Yes, I’m talking about an imaginary friend here – a disembodied sort of avatar distinct from the kind we see in contemporary role-playing games in that we imagine it observing us rather than the other way around. Could I create an external, ethereal self, communicate with that self, grant it moral authority and watchman duties over my actions and emotions, share with it my hopes, dreams, and embarrassments? Pray to it…the whole ball of wax? And, isn’t prayer just a mode of self-affirmation in this sort of situation – an emanation of the will in a very Schopenhaurian sort of way?
Let’s wrap up here. Where’s the distinction between organized religion and this self-starter religiosity – why take the DIY approach? Wouldn’t it make more sense to take the plunge, endure some dunk-tank religious ritual, absolve myself of a life’s worth of guilt, and start fresh – born again?
Faith is a nonstarter for me but belief – and faithfulness to an idea or knowledge – does work because it lacks the external trust component. The priest or expert class is personally repulsive, too – why entrust the metaphysical whole of your being to an outsider?
Then there’s the ease of the conversion that makes me so incredibly wary. From where I stand, Christianity (and I keep referring to Christianity because it was the flavor of choice in the household in which I was raised) wouldn’t require any conviction or effort at all. The residue that clings to the grimy, stark collection of mistakes I’ve made in 29 years of faulty life would be washed away, I’d be free to forget all the tough lessons that accompanied the many falls, and I’d never have to reason through a decision again. Once “saved,” I’d be free to simply follow a pre-plotted course towards moral absolution and, should I decide to make a wrong turn here and there, I’d be armed with the knowledge that my God grants an endless flow of mulligans to those who admit their error and pledge to reform their ways.
While a universalist God can offer true forgiveness, a self-entity never can. The knowledge of the indiscretion is etched into the psyche. I believe that it’s impossible to forgive yourself – absolutely – for anything. Forgiveness is, I think, often confused with forgetfulness in our contemporary understanding and, in that sense, it erodes the value of experiential learning. Isn’t it better to learn, even through failure, than to forgive one’s self and forget?
I often wonder whether nihilism was born of Christianity’s womb – and if it was, it must be atheism’s cousin. The monotheists first teach us an axiomatic version of right and wrong that’s wrapped up in the trappings of good and evil (or weak, modest vs. strong, exploitative). Next, monotheism advises us that, even when it becomes clear – by the religion’s own edicts – that you have transgressed the moral code, you can’t answer for your own sins, even if you’re willing to acknowledge them. You’ll have to wait for God’s all-knowing grace first to grant you the forgiveness that we’re each taught to seek. So, you’re set free of moral restraints except in how they relate to God. Modernity shows us that God is dead or somesuch. Everything still matters if man was never cut out of the moral universe but, since the steward of morality is dead, man is now free from all moral attachment and set loose to wallow in his own insignificance.
Self-religion has other virtues, too – you’ve uploaded your own catalogued values into this “created self.” To do so requires that you first take inventory of your belief system. Moving forward, the external self acts as a guide – questions whether or not you’re living within your own moral boundaries. The system also allows room to edit your values, too. You can check in and reassess here where, within the Big 2 (Judeo-Christianity and Islam), if your values evolve you must acknowledge either past or present failings. This deadens the value of experience and moral reflection – why should I consider right or wrong if it’s already laid out before me?
Absurd or not, the irrefragable truth of imaginary friend-ism is that it can be cathartic to take a long, serious look inward from time to time. It’s probably also OK to care about things intermittently, even if the world doesn’t care back. And sometimes, when you feel alone on crowded city streets, if you realize the Greek notion of the public sphere is as alien as, well, aliens, and if you see the private sphere eroding and giving way to that of the social, maybe it just might help to know that you’re never truly alone. Personally, at times like those, I know I’ve always got my imaginary pal Jack Burton to look down upon me and keep me honest.