Friday, November 1, 2013

Reflections on doubt, uncertainty, scepticism and faith

It is not hard to see why our ancestors, deep from the past, would attempt to "explain" the difference between their daily lives and their hopes for something different, even better, somewhere in the future, even if that future included their own death. It is also not hard to see how, given the beauty and the bounty of the "sky" and the "sun" and the clouds and the rain and the snow and the sleet, that their imaginations and their hopes might converge in flights of expectations of a different kind of life.
Humans seem to have to innate capacity to posit two different situations, almost as a precursor to the binary world of the digital media, in which we are drowning today. Along with that "elevation" of the promise of the heavens would come, almost co-incidentally, a corresponding fear and loathing of something that they would and did call the "underworld" where bad things live and where, if one lived a bad life, one might spend the rest of time having to live. Rewards and punishments, it seems have been baked into the cake of human culture, regardless of the specific religion, faith, or nature of a deity on which to focus human attention, worship, adoration and even from the Greek, "fear" (awe).
And there is value in such an imaginative (and not necessarily imaginary) juxtaposition of a world of hope, promise, love and acceptance, as an antidote for a world of the complete opposites of those, especially with respect to the manner in which humans seem to interact as a normal basis. Attempting to locate human beings somewhere between the two polarities, given the ordinary observations and experiences of both pain and love, seems like something all generations of all ethnicities could and would both generate and then subscribe to, in however much rigour and discipline, once again under the promise and threat of rewards and punishments, respectively.
I once heard a "feminista" declare to her husband, "When we go out into the world, we put on our armor, in order to defend ourselves against the onslaught of competition and the business and professional world's insensitivities and cruelties, and when we come home we should be able to take that armor off and feel confident that we do not need it."
For those of us who experienced in our early lives the precise opposite, that is that we found the outside world much more accepting and supporting and integrating than we found our lives inside our family homes, we have been confused, for many decades, about such a perception, that armor was more needed outside the home than inside it.
"Armor" in this case, consists primarily of defensiveness, wariness, looking over the shoulder and learning how to "smell" or intuit upcoming turbulence. Armor included an over-developed perception, not merely with the physical senses, but also with the emotional and intuitive and the psychic perceptions which also come with being human, but receive far less respect in our world of empirical and provable "reality" that is the core of the scientific approach to understanding the universe, both externally and internally. So, those of us who needed to develop or find, or drag up from somewhere inside us, of even from our buddies down the street, when things inside our home threatened our sense of stability and safety, our capacity to cope with, even if never to comprehend, the ravages of individual human extremes, when we knew absolutely nothing about a Shadow, or an internal demon, or even something like mental illness, (and back in the fifties, not only was our knowledge limited to a superficial and simplistic garbling of Freud's work, along with Darwin's, but public conversation and acceptance of attitudes and behaviours that included physical and emotional abuse of children and spouses, while never really understood, was too often relegated to the closet of secrecy, in a vain attempt to preserve some vestige of public respectability and pride.
And to that secrecy was often added an concerted attempt to demonstrate worthiness, or even specialness, in some pursuit for which observable results could be documented, demonstrated and even paraded throughout the neighbourhood. And secrecy and hubris were too often linked to some form of formal religion, going to church, following a holy book and the proscribed teachings of local and untrained teachers whose commitment to their faith and to their interpretation of that faith were unshakeable but nevertheless also tenuous at best. In fact, it too often seemed that their commitment was in inverse proportion to their deep understanding, and so they worked very hard to 'convert' their innocent minds and spirits, in their Sunday School classes to their extremely limited and limiting view of God, his expectations, and the rewards and punishments for not obeying that God.
After seven decades, I have come to perceive, if not totally believe, that it is only through a consistent and persistent uncertainty, questioning, and even radically opposing some of the most restricting and restricted versions of faith, that I have been able to survive, and to continue to find the universe extolling both the wonders of science and the dangers of humanity's tenuous hold on the powers of science which have already been unleashed and which will continue to be unleashed as our clocks continue their pointing to our tomorrow's.
Doubting Thomas, is one of the better known sceptics, from a Christian heritage, whose value in the hierarchy of Christian saints has never been very high, down somewhere with the Judases of the legacy.
Nevertheless, Thomas has been a consistent inspiration for some of our lives, as have the most vigorous critics of the church establishment, like Kierkegaarde, Matthew Fox, and even Thomas More and Dietrich Bonhoeffer at times.
Holding tightly to both wonder and doubt seems to accompany a healthy regard for both a faith tradition and a future of hope. It is only through the lens of our personal experiences that we are able to both see and imagine our relationship to life, to death to God and to eternity, if there is one.
And, unfortunately, such doubt and such scepticism and such questioning, especially of the formal authorities in the religious enterprise, too often brings contempt, and even expulsion from the organizations whose prime purpose, it would seem, would be to continue to question and to change and to adopt to even higher expectations and promises and hopes than those of our ancestors, without disrespecting that history, or succumbing to a form of entrapping hubris.
Humility, it seems, would accompany any spiritual life following  any deity we could imagine, and the pomposity and certitude that inevitably accompanies the kind of certainty we see in too many religious fanatics, belies and defames and defaces their faith expression.
And so, we continue to both imagine that things might and could and possibly will "improve" and also that we live in times where our fears find new expressions, as do our dreams, and we continue to explore both our internal and our external universes, in the hope and faith that we can and will find our better angels, no matter which faith or ethnic community first attempted to raise us, however abysmally those attempts failed.

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