January 5, 2015: My Long Silence

My last entry of September 1 was in appreciation of a Global eBook Award for The Father. At that time I was fully engaged in writing the second volume in this trilogy. Things were looking up. Then two things happened. First, my research of source material for that second volume revealed problems in a deeper study of Western civilization that shocked me. Some of this landscape I’ve walked before, but the big realization was that the ideals I have fully supported – present in the West from its founding - are the very ideals that appear irresistibly fatal to human meaning. Not a secret to philosophers, many have tried unsuccessfully to rectify this for centuries. Most of us are tacitly aware of the social symptoms large and small, like disunity, disconnectedness, isolation, retreats from ethics, monumental greed and common rudeness. Fewer of us – including me – have taken time to dig up the roots of these problems. That’s what volume two was meant to be about. The Father is, in a sense, the symptoms of social decline and their ultimate consequences. The uncovering of more fundamental causes were to be central to volume two, and what John goes off to find at the end of volume one. Hence the research.

And just what are these issues that paralyzed my pen? To be quite approximate, they boil down to one: individualism. Sounds harmless at first glance, and who could be against it? From individualism came the authorization (which became a demand) to question and challenge everything, especially authority outside the individual. The “discovery of individualism,” especially after it took flight with the Enlightenment (1650-1750), created a surge in innovation and personal meaning through exercise of the will in a way never before experienced by humans. People had previously been subservient to their role in a hierarchy determined before they were born. There was no independence, no self-determination, no rights or equality. That anyone would dare consider such ideas would have been revolting to ancient and medieval peoples. Meaning came from belonging to a true community of like-minded people known for life, in face-to-face relations with common beliefs, primarily that of religion. As Pierre Manent put it, in modernity “we are henceforth doomed to confront our autonomy without transcendent foundation.” [1]

In the West, individualism has triumphed in a 400 year battle with religion, tradition, community belonging, and the guiding reference these once provided. We traded virtue (self-restraint for the greater good) for liberty (expression of the will for self-satisfaction), and now live in an era when individual rights, expression, and gratification of every kind are paramount. A perpetual present where “free choice” is king - well suited for consumerism – and disconnected not only from others but from a past that once animated civilizations. I have embraced all these freedoms. But as Morgan states in The Father, “We…invent ourselves. We can just as easily uninvent it all. Problem is, once you know what you’re up to, you can never pretend again.” There comes a time in all our lives when this is a dangerous realization to make.

There is a direct correlation between education and religious belief. The more a population is educated, the less it really believes stories of murderous gods, miracles and resurrections. Be they one of the many resurrections listed in the annals of history, like the Egyptian god Osiris, or other examples that some of us believe are absolutely true. Or do we? There is an ever more strident tone from those appearing desperate to reassure themselves rather than convince others, notably in the battles of Creationism against the proven material success of science. Some of this is a reaction to smug, almost evangelical pronouncements from a handful of atheist scientists who have their share in generating the response. Pointing to atrocities in the Mid-East as the certain outcome of supernatural beliefs only fans the flames, and sounds a good deal like arguments I made at Creationist museums – looking for a fight - when I was younger. But the Enlightenment command to question and challenge everything, so central to individualist states, does not spare beliefs people consider sensitive. Sensitive because those beliefs give their lives meaning. Most on this planet are poor, their lives short, misery a daily fact of life. Belief is all they’ve got. Yet even in America, the most religious of Western nations, religious belief is in retreat. Those considering themselves non-religious were 5% of the population in 1930, 8% in 1990, 20% in 2013, reports UC Berkeley and Duke University surveys. The January 3, 2015 Wall Street Journal noted a front-page story on mass closures of churches across Europe, transformed into clothing stores, skate board play grounds, taverns. Congregations are disappearing. Apparently this is not true of Judaism’s stability and Islam’s expansion in Europe. [2]

As Boston University’s Peter L. Berger notes, it would take something like a genetic mutation to remove the religious impulse from humanity. [3] And there’s the problem. Our own human nature of the heart is denied by a human creation of the mind. Gladly, education continues to expand. Though most of it is utilitarian, avoiding philosophy, the urge to question everything grows more widespread. As a career physicist, I’ve been comfortable with the practice in science. And yet, even as an agnostic, the consequences of it in the social domain terrifies me. (Some presume agnostic equals atheist. Not so.) Our loss in the belief of anything not measurable creates a variety of social strains in modernity that the ancients were free from (they had other problems). Noted symptoms are an example. As Marcel Gauchet writes, “As though society is incapable of supporting its own internal contradictions discovered on the social terrain once religion ceased to conceal them.” [4] It is perhaps the irony of all ironies that, according to Louis Dumont, it was Christianity that had the single strongest hand in transmitting ancient Greek Stoic individualism to the Enlightenment through Christianity’s personal (individual) relationship with Christ. Followed by Calvinism that turned lose the Puritan idea of sanctifying the profane world with tireless, endless, obsessive work as a “calling,” becoming the Protestant ethic. [5]

In America, work is our purpose. Purpose we have in abundance. As Tocqueville noted in 1840, Americans are incessantly busy. [6] We’ve got plenty to do. (Purpose is internal, meaning is external, our value reflected in someone or something else.) On the other hand, meaning is inherent and irrefutable regardless of how bad things are if and only if we can keep our beliefs alive and unquestionable. That is no longer possible for a growing number of people in the modern world. When calling was attached to belief – seen as human participation in a divine plan – purpose and meaning were united. Once Enlightenment reason acted as a solvent on belief, work became a matter of the material world, not salvation in the next. Meaning became isolated from work but survived outside our toils as the longstanding gift of God. But God of the Judeo-Christian world was defined by ancient writings and traditions. It was open season on religion and tradition, targeted with the deepest philosophical scrutiny. Read literally, not symbolically, the beginning of dismissal commenced.

As history shows, the old gods depended on us, our perception of them to keep them alive. Those gods had been absolutely real to those people. They didn’t sacrifice, in some cases, humans, because they thought their gods were myth. They all had their witnesses, and held that their gods existed regardless of belief in them. But when perceptions changed, the gods were buried. Do current trends imply we’re on the same path? Perhaps our beliefs require a new definition – as Karen Armstrong notes, one that can match our scientific prowess. [7] In other words, must humans redefine our beliefs to save our beliefs and thus ourselves? Along the way, on the first Monday of each odd-numbered month, I’ll post to this blog my latest findings on these subjects.

So goes the first of two things that happened to stall this blog. The second occurred just days after I’d had a conversation with my mother, telling her how good things were. How I had nothing to complain about, knowing I would anyway. “It’s times like this,” I said, “I have to pinch myself to make sure I’m awake. But there’s one thing for sure in this life: whatever it’s like, good or bad, it will change.” Change it did. I was preparing for a coffee shop writing session, but running late. The routine was modified, and in the moments of catchup one of my six children was out of his usual place. (Those who are not animal lovers won’t understand, but my children consist of 3 cats, 3 dogs.) This was the cat, Cooty, that tended to everyone else in the house. There to mother any of them; come to me when there was trouble between them; and act as an almost constant appendage of mine. Then Cooty appeared in a panic, running straight for me as he always did when something was wrong. He fell and began to convulse as I hesitated for the longest second, staring at him. I ran to him like a fool, pleading with him to tell me what was wrong, his mouth wide, eyes buldged, already dilating. I could think of no reason for this. Seized with panic I could think of nothing. The best I could do was assume a heart attack, but he was only 12, an indoor cat. My job seemed to be to comfort him, to be there in these last terrifying seconds as oxygen ran out in his brain, hearing me tell him how much I loved him, how everything would be OK. I held him and scratched his head in the way he liked as he stopped moving and I kept talking, telling him what a good boy he was. This happened to me before, in life and in a scene I wrote about, and maybe that was the only thing I had to reference under the circumstances. Later I found he’d chewed off a piece of carpet backing. Online I discovered there are ways to save a choking cat. I didn’t know this. I’d never seen a cat choke. But I was the man with 21 patents. My career was spent thinking of new ways to solve hard problems. I was decisive under pressure. There wasn’t a situation I feared I could not solve. In those few instants on that autumn morning all that changed. Decisive I was not. When faced with someone in their most dire moment, with trust I'd fix any problem, to do nothing feels like betrayal and a guilt hard to shake.

While 52 million people have been displaced by war, the northern white rhino functionally extinct with five remaining, and another Malaysian plane full of people lost at sea, the death of Cooty hardly ranks on a scale outside my home, but that doesn’t mean I don’t still miss him. Tiger (a dog) doesn’t look for Cooty anymore, but Smokey (a cat) still does. Cats have different sounding meows that mean different things – at least to other cats. When I’m in bed at night and hear that meow that would bring Cooty running, it breaks my heart. Smokey seems to recognize Cooty’s photo as he smells the glass and frame, then looks behind it, like he’s going to find where Cooty’s been all this time. It’s surprising to me how large is the space occupied by just one of these creatures. Unlike we humans, they are pure innocence. When the nightly routine has each in their respective places, mostly pinning me to a fixed form and location in bed, then, like the long lost and rather "corny" TV ending of The Waltons, I say goodnight to each by name, including Cooty and two cats I lost long ago, Hawkeye and Sammy. In the world we’ve made where nothing is permanent, I suppose, like meaning, we have to invent it, and tend it to keep it alive.


[1] Pierre Manent, “The Modern State,” in “New French Thought: Political Philosophy,” Princeton, 1994
[2] Naftali Bendavid, "Europe’s Empty Churches Go on Sale," Wall Street Journal, 1/3/15
[3] Peter L. Berger, Ed. “The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics,” Eerdman, 1999
[4] Marcel Gauchet, “Primitive Religions and the Origins of the State,” in “New French Thought: Political Philosophy,” Princeton, 1994
[5] Louis Dumont, “Essays in Individualism: Modern Ideology in Anthropological Perspective,” University Of Chicago Press, 1986
[6] Alexis de Tocqueville, “Democracy in America,” Mentor, 1984
[7] Karen Armstrong, “The Battle For God,” Ballantine, 2000
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Published on January 05, 2015 18:33
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