Saturday, May 21, 2005
Reprinted from NewsMax.com
[COMMENT: This is an extraordinary piece from an agnostic warrior with an extraordinary history. Well worth reading. He is open and honest about his spiritual struggles. An honest agnostic is closer to God than the many "let's pretend" Christians. How many Christians could give him an intellectually, morally, and spiritually honest response? Can you...? E. Fox]
I have just published a new book called "The End of Time," which is
different from my others. In the first place, its subject is different, although
I have written a memoir, "Radical Son," and "The End of Time" is something of a
memoir as well. In the second place, its authorial voice is different.
I have been engaged in the political wars for so long that people perceive me as someone perpetually engaged in combat. Like most perceptions this is only partially correct. I actually have a soft side, and a reflective one. This is a book of lessons about life, from one man's perspective. Life. I didn't see it coming. That is a theme of this book. In fact none of us see it coming when we start on our journeys. That is one of the paradoxes of our existence. We are all so different and unique. And yet in several crucial ways we are the same. And this is one of them: None of us sees life coming. Or as the Christian testament puts it: We see as through a glass darkly, never face to face.
My book is a kind of letter to the young, about what I have seen, about what to expect. And it is a consolation for the old, in a sense, because it is about what we all have been through.
More than 300 years ago a great scientist, a Catholic philosopher and a poet of the soul named Blaise Pascal outlined our predicament. When he died at the age of 39, Pascal left a collection of notes that he had stitched together with needle and thread and which were published after his death. Known as Pascal's "Pensees," they have become a classic of Western thought.
This is the fragment numbered 205:
"When I consider the short duration of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and after, … engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces of which I am ignorant and which know me not, I am frightened and astonished at being here rather than there. For there is no reason why here rather than there, why now rather than then. Who has put me here?"
For mortals like us there is no answer. In the words of St. John: "Believers and non-believers stand in the same darkness. Neither sees God."
Pascal was one of the greatest scientific minds that ever lived. He looked into the eye of the universe and could not find an answer. Without a Creator to make sense of it, he wrote, a human life is "intolerable."
What, then, are we to do? Pascal's answer to this question was his famous "Wager." Pascal was a physical scientist and also a mathematician who pioneered in the field of probability theory, devising formulas to calculate the odds of winning at games of chance.
Look on life, he said, as a game of chance. If you wager that there is a God who will make sense of all this, who will give meaning to our lives, who will provide us with a home in this infinite expanse of unexplored space, then there are two possibilities: If there is God, you win. If there is no God, then you have lost nothing by wagering that He exists. Therefore, wager that there is a God, and that life has meaning.
I am an agnostic. I do not know if there is a God or not. But I have lived my life as though what I do has meaning, and therefore I have, in a way, taken Pascal's advice.
As an agnostic I have also seen that there are ways of believing and of demanding meanings from life that are destructive and that are the source of great human suffering and grief. I will return to these thoughts in a moment.
* * *
Part of my book is about death and how death affects the lives we live. We live a great deal of our lives in denial of our end, as though we will go on forever. At least young people do. When you get to my age, you can see the horizon coming. Or rather, you can't avoid seeing the horizon coming.
This denial and its impact on the purposes to which we devote ourselves informs the title of my book "The End of Time." This title has two meanings: first, that our time has an end; and second, that knowledge of this fact should shape our ends.
In my book I refer to a story by Saul Bellow that provides an image for this denial. "When there is too much going on," Bellow writes, "more than you can bear, you may choose to assume that nothing in particular is happening, that your life is going round and round like a turntable."
Bellow doesn't say whether this is a turntable like the ones you find in playgrounds, or a turntable like those on which we used to play our music on vinyl records. Which are gone now like so much else.
Perhaps the denial Bellow is referring to is larger than the moment itself. Perhaps he is hinting that the music of your days can lull you into an illusion that the present will go on and on, and will never go anywhere else. Or perhaps, more simply, that your life is in motion when you think you are just standing still.
That is, until something happens. Until you get clobbered by events and wake up to the fact that the stillness is an illusion. That everything is changing about you, and that one day it will come to an end.
Bellow's own clobbering was the death of his mother through cancer when he was 17.
On the day this story takes place the young Bellow, who works for a local florist, is sent to deliver flowers to the funeral of a 15-year-old girl. Disoriented by the experience, he goes to his uncle's office for comfort. But his uncle isn't in and while the young man is in the building he encounters a sexual mystery woman. This woman lures him to an apartment, where she induces him to undress and then steals his money and his clothes.
The humiliated youngster is forced to return home in a dress he has found in her closet. As he approaches his house, he fears his father's wrath. But then he remembers what he has forgotten on his turntable – that his mother is dying.
Ironically, remembering this produces in him immediate feelings of relief. He realizes that if his father is angry when he enters the door, it will mean that his mother is still alive.
This is how Bellow describes the experience of his mother's death: "One day you are aware that what you took to be a turntable, smooth, flat and even, was in fact a whirlpool, a vortex."
The vortex of his mother's death sucked some part of Saul Bellow beneath the surface and it never came back. "My life was never the same after my mother died," Bellow said long after the event. In the story, he wrote, "I knew she was dying, and didn't allow myself to think about it – there's your turntable."
There are all kinds of turntables that draw us into life and lead us to think it will go on without end.
When I was in my fifties I fell in love with a younger woman, who came to me as an unexpected blessing in middle age. Her name is April and this romance, which blossomed into marriage, became for me a new lease on life.
I bought a new house for us. It was perched like an aerie on the palisades overlooking the Pacific. Because it cost more than my previous house, I applied for a new insurance policy that would cover the mortgage for my wife in the event of my death.
I had to take a series of medical tests to qualify for the insurance. When they were completed, the company told me my application was rejected because I had a PSA of 6. PSA is an acronym for prostate specific antigen. It is a number that can indicate the presence of a prostate cancer, which is so common in men that it is almost a feature of age.
I didn't believe the test result. I had just had a check-up a few months earlier and my PSA was only 4. How could it have gone up so fast? Moreover, friends of mine had PSAs of 9 and no cancer. I demanded another test, which came back with a similar score.
I still was unconvinced. You could call this my turntable. I as soon expected to get cancer in this life as to go on a voyage to the moon. I called my doctor and he ordered a biopsy for me. The biopsy showed that I did have a prostate cancer.
Obviously, I hadn't paid much attention to things like cancer – or to my body, for that matter. Some of us are obsessed with our bodies and their care and feeding. Others live in their heads and consider time spent on their bodies as frivolous and time wasted. It's funny how we all have these gravities of our being that determine who and what we are in such fundamental ways, yet hardly think about them or how we came to have them in the first place.
Some of us are optimists and expect good things to happen to us and are surprised when they don't. Others are pessimists who expect the worst and are pleasantly surprised when things turn out well. Obviously I was an optimist and a cockeyed one at that.
Three weeks later, I went into the hospital and had my prostate removed. I was lucky. I had a brilliant surgeon and with a little radiation afterwards, I was cancer free.
Day in and day out during my illness, my wife prayed for me. She prayed for my health and for my continued presence on this earth. Her brother Joe and his wife, Marta, who attended a Catholic church, organized 30 Hispanic men, women and children, including my nieces, to pray for me too. There were others.
Every morning these relatives and strangers whispered my name in their intimate conversations with God, and implored him to spare me. I was touched and strengthened by their love and by their answered prayers. I had been saved and was grateful for that. I would be able to share life with April again, to be with my children and grandchildren, to rise in the morning and greet the sea.
Was God really behind this good fortune? Had He intervened to rescue an agnostic soul as a reward to the believers? Thankful as I was for their concern, I didn't like to think so. For if He had saved me to answer their prayers, then I would also have to hold Him responsible for the others, the ones whose prayers went unheard.
One of the patients who came regularly to the cancer ward at my appointed time was a young woman who seemed to be in her twenties. She came in a wheelchair accompanied by a sad woman who appeared to be her mother, and who pushed her to the clinic from one of the recesses of the vast hospital complex we were part of.
She had barely begun life, but her eyes had already traveled to a distant space, displaying a vacancy that could have been equally the result of medications or resignation.
For her this life had become a waiting room from which there was no exit. I could not help thinking, each time I saw her, of the many lives I had been privileged to live in my span, and those she would not.
I was acutely conscious of the inhabitants of the cancer ward whose prospects were worse than mine. Along with those who loved them, they had endured multiple operations, multiple setbacks, years of a crippled existence, and a fate on hold.
"Life is a hospital," the poet T.S. Eliot wrote. I could appreciate the metaphorical truth in the image, but it still felt like a violence to the reality that confronted me. Not all life's hospitals were equal and not all God's children were saved.
* * *
I had my biopsy four years ago, in September 2001, exactly two days before 9/11. Having spent the next four or five months in a battle for life, alongside others some of whom would make it and some who would not, ever conscious of the uncertainty of my fate, ever more conscious of the end of time, I was struck reading about the 9/11 attackers when I came across this phrase: "Love death."
It was a phrase that Mohamed Atta, the leader of the terrorists, wrote in his instructions to his team. "Prepare for jihad and be lovers of death."
How can one love death? This is the enigma at the heart of human history, which is a narrative moved by war between tribes and nations. For how can men go to war unless they love death, or a cause that is worth more than life itself?
Lovers of jihad have such a cause. They believe they can redeem the world. This faith is what gives their lives meaning, puts order in the universe and restores justice to an unjust existence. By conquering the infidel world and instituting the law of the Koran they believe they can make the world holy and make it whole.
The world we live in – unjust, chaotic, and suffused with suffering – is full of earthly redeemers. They are both secular and religious. These are people who cannot abide the life they have been given or who cannot wait to see if the end of their time on this earth will bring them a better in the next. These are the radicals who believe that without a divine intervention they can build a kingdom of heaven in this life, on this earth.
To realize their mission, both secular and religious radicals divide the world into two realms – the realm of those who are saved and the realm of those who are damned. Believers and infidels, oppressors and oppressed.
Therefore, radicals are permanently at war; their lives are a perpetual jihad.
The fact is that we all long for a judgment that will make the world right. A God who will reward virtue and punish the wicked. Therefore, every God of love is also a God of righteousness and death. And that is why the radical belief in a redemption in this world is the most destructive force in the heart of mankind.
I once shared this radical faith. Life was intolerable to me without a redemptive hope. This quest for a world transformed brought tragedy to me as it has brought tragedy to the lives of so many others. The 20th century is a graveyard in which millions of corpses were sacrificed to the illusion of an earthly salvation.
Whether they are secular or religious radicals, those who believe we can become masters of our fate think they know more than Pascal.
But in their search for truth, where do they imagine they have gone that he did not go before them? In the end, their confidence is only a mask for the inevitable defeat that is our common lot, an inverse mirror of their human need.
I understand Pascal's religion. I understand his anxious bewilderment at a life of no consequence. I understand his hope for a personal redemption and his search for an answer.
But I no longer understand the faith of radicals, who think they can change the world. I no longer share the belief that men by themselves and without a divine hand can transform the world we live in and create paradise on earth.
* * *
Part of my book is a memoir, the story of how I met April, how she stood by me in my illness and nursed me through, and how I began a new chapter in life. I will not spoil the love story in this book by attempting to recount it here, but when April and I had been together for ten years, she said this: "When you die, I tell myself I'll be seeing you spiritually someday again. I don't know how I would live with the thought of you gone if I didn't believe that. I don't know how people who have no belief in God manage. It's a sad way to carry your heart through life."
But she knew I did just that. She said: "You need to respect God more. He's been good to you. When you came out of the operating room you were so handsome and your skin was magical, there was a glow on you. I knew that someone, maybe your grandma or your mom, was looking out for you." And then she said: "You have a mission. Most people are like me and don't. But you have a mission. God is protecting you."
It is a privilege to be loved. It can almost make you a believer, even if believing is not in you from the beginning. You give, and if you are lucky what you give comes back, and it comes back in ways you would never have imagined.
I could not so easily dismiss April's idea of a grace unseen. I knew I had taken risks others prudently avoided, and had escaped unharmed. I had been felled by a cancer and was still around to talk about it. But what was the mission that might cause God to look out for me?
Why would the God of the Jews take a hand in the affairs of one of His children in any case? The Biblical point was that God gave us free will to determine our fates. Why would He intervene to change mine?
I had a mission once that tragedy altered and brought to an end. I had given up this idea of an earthly redemption. I had come to see the very dream as a vortex of destruction and had become an adversary of such illusions in others. This was the mission that April meant. But while I took pleasure in her romance I could not flatter myself to think a providential eye was looking out for me because of it. This was the very illusion I had escaped. The personal dream of every radical is to be at the center of creation and the renewal of the world. What I had learned in my life was that we were not at the center of anything but our own insignificance. There was nothing indispensable about us; about me, or anyone.
The wars of the social redeemers were as old as the Tower of Babel and would go on forever. With or without me. The dreamers would go on building towers to heaven, and just as inexorably they would come crashing to earth. Some would take to heart the lessons of the Fall, but others would fail to even notice them, or care.
Inspired by the dreamers who preceded them and innocent of their crimes, an unending cycle of generations would repeat what they had done. The suffering of the guilty and the innocent would continue without end, and nothing I could do or say would alter it.
The summons I had answered was more modest by far. I was a witness. I needed not to forget what I had learned through pain, and to pay my debt. I needed to warn whom I could and to protect whom I might, even if it was only one individual or two. If I had a mission to name, it was about wrestling with the most powerful and pernicious of all human follies, which is the desire to stifle truth in the name of hope.
Here is why you cannot change the world: Because we – all six billion of us – create it. We do so individually and relentlessly and in every generation. We shape the world as monarchs in our own homes and as masters of others in the world beyond, when we cannot even master ourselves.
Every breeder of new generations is a stranger to his mate and a mystery to himself. Every offspring is a self-creator who learns through rebellion and surrender, through injury and error, and often not at all.
This is the root cause that makes us who and what we are – the good, the bad, the demented, the wise, the benevolent and brute. We are creatures blind and ignorant, stumbling helplessly through a puff of time.
The future is a work of prejudice and malice inextricably bound with generosity and hope. Its fate is unalterably out of our control. Insofar as this work is manageable at all, it is carried out now and forever under the terrible anarchy of freedom that God has imposed on his children and will not take back.
Created by us each day at odds with each other and over and over, the world can never be made whole. It is irrevocably broken into billions of fragments, into microscopic bits of human unhappiness and earthly frustration. And no one can fix it.
Blaise Pascal was an agnostic of the intellect, but a believer of the heart. He recognized that his condition was hopeless: only a divinity could heal his sickness and make him whole. Because science provided no answers to his questions, he trusted in the God of Abraham to provide what no mortal can. Pascal was a realist of faith. He drew a line between the sacred and the profane, and respected the gulf that separates this world from the next. He did not presume to achieve his own salvation in this world, or anyone else's.
Not so the redeemers. They cannot live with themselves or the fault in creation, and therefore are at war with both. This makes them profoundly unhappy people. Because they are miserable in their own lives they cannot abide the happiness of others. To escape their suffering they seek Judgment, the rectification that will take them home.
If they do not believe in a God, they summon other men to act as gods. If they believe in God, they do not trust His justice but arrange their own. In either case, the consequence of their passion is the same catastrophe. This is because the devil they hate is in themselves and the sword of their vengeance is wielded by inhabitants of the very hell they wish to escape.
There is no redemption in this life. Generation after generation, we transmit our faults and pass on our sins. From parents to children, we create the world in our own image. And no power can stop us. Every life is an injustice. And no one can fix it. We are born and we die. If there is no God to rescue us, we are nothing.
* * *
In my time, I have found a solace and consolation in the written word. The universe I inhabit remains a mystery but I go on living and writing, nonetheless, as though there were a reason for both. Almost every day I create an order on the page, which reflects the order I see in the world. Whether it actually is one or not doesn't matter as much as the fact that the quest moves me forward as though I am headed somewhere, and rescues me from the despair that would overwhelm me if I were not.
If I did not believe there was an order, I suppose I would not be able to pursue one at all. The pursuit is my comfort and the order my personal line of faith. They put oxygen into the air around me and allow me to breathe.
At the halfway mark of the last century, which to me does not seem so long ago, the gifted American writer William Faulkner won the Nobel Prize for Literature -- an award, like every other human vanity, bestowed on the undeserving and the deserving alike.
Faulkner's most famous novel, "The Sound and the Fury," is a title he took from Shakespeare's tragedy "Macbeth." In pursuit of worldly gain, Macbeth betrays every human value and relationship that is meaningful to him. In the process he is stripped of all human companionship and respect, until he is only an empty and embittered shell.
Having emptied his own life of its spiritual supports, he turns against life itself: "It is a tale told by an idiot," he proclaims, "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing."
But when Faulkner mounted the podium in Oslo to receive his Nobel Prize and felt as though he was speaking to the world, he struck a very different note. The year was 1950, the dawn of the nuclear era. Faulkner looked into the eye of its darkest prospect and declared: "I refuse to accept this. I believe that … when the last ding-dong of doom has clanged and faded … in the last dying red evening … man will not merely endure: he will prevail."
Others criticized Faulkner's pronouncement as mere bravado. What basis could he have for such a claim? But this faith was not his wisdom. It was the oxygen he needed to breathe.
April and I acquired a little Mexican dog with black and white markings, whose improbable name was Jacob and whose brain is smaller than my fist. When Jacob wags his tail for joy he does not hide his pleasure as we, burdened with consciousness, often do. Instead, his whole frame is swept into the movement as though life had no reality but this. Jacob is one of the myriad creatures on this earth, ridiculous and also beautiful, whose origin is a mystery and who do not worry the significance of who or why or what they are.
In the morning when I step out of my shower this little self comes to me unbidden to lick the glistening drops from my feet. This is not a ritual of submission; it does not have any meaning for him at all. It is merely his pleasure. What is interesting is that I, a creature who lives by meanings, am also affected by this action. When he does not come, I feel the absence and miss him.
This is a microcosm of all the visits and vacancies that bring misery and happiness to our lives. We can embrace them or not. This is a choice we freely make that determines whether life will hollow us out and embitter us, or provide us oxygen to breathe.
What is ahead of us? Like Pascal, we don't know. "Believers and non-believers stand in the same darkness. Neither sees God."
Therefore like Pascal we should wager on life. We should bear ourselves in this world as though we have seen God, be kind to each other, love wisely, and give to our children what we would have wished for ourselves.
[COMMENT (again): This is an extraordinary piece from an agnostic warrior with an extraordinary history. He is open and honest about his spiritual struggles. How many Christians could give him an intellectually, morally, and spiritually honest response? Can you...? E. Fox]
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