I recently got into a disheartening debate with a young woman, a fellow intern at RFE/RL, about religion. My heart sank so much because, at no older than eighteen years old, she already has a rigid, cynical, and contradictory view of the world. On the one hand, this life is all there is, and it should be sufficient — all kinds of metaphysical talk about God, the soul, afterlives, and so on, is only unprovable distracting claptrap. On the other hand, this life is also insufficient — human beings are evil, civilization is a moral failure, and the empirical, measurable universe is a cold, indifferent wasteland.
I tried to explain my point of view: human beings aren’t evil, they’re stumbling in the dark, and civilization is only a moral failure if we hold it to an impossible and abstract standard. Evil exists, yes, but, ironically, it’s not always so evil. We never know the true fruits of actions. For example, had the Khmer Rouge never brutalized Cambodia, I would never have known my first love, and had Socrates not suffered injustice, Plato might never have written his dialogues and Aristotle his meditations, and who knows how art and science would have fared without them?
As to the universe being a cold, indifferent wasteland, one might be surprised to discover the contrary. Astronomers often remark about the miracleness of our planet — so much has had to go right, from the position of the moon to the placidity of our immediate cosmic neighborhood — that sometimes it seems the universe is actually conspiring on our behalf. But even if the universe is indeed a blind machine, then, as Nietzsche thought, could it not be the mission of intelligent species (ours and perhaps others) to inject moral and aesthetic order into this mechanistic order?
Finally, turning to her Sartrian argument against metaphysics, this seemed to be at the core of her logic: essentially, either there is God, and therefore no freedom and value in life, or there is no God, and therefore this life is all that we have — and yet, precisely because it is transient, it is also naggingly empty. I struggled to find the words for my response at the time, but alas, they come to me only now.
For me, belief in God does not desiccate this life, but the opposite, belief enriches it, even overloads it with value. When the prophets speak about the deficiency of our present material existence compared to what waits beyond death, I believe it is because this life, in its essence, is already stupendous and wonderful — in its barbarity, its beauty, its simplicity, and its complexity. How much more stupendous and wonderful, then, is the universe if there is life beyond life and universe beyond universe!
If we could grasp this compounded wonder continually and clearly, it would put us in a very different frame of mind with regards to our present material existence. We might finally comprehend Gandhi’s advise to “renounce and enjoy,” and we might treat this life, this physical universe, each other, much differently, much better, than we do now. We might have more detachment, more compassion, more commitment, and more joy.
At the moment, instead, we cling to shadows. I choose that metaphor on purpose: shadows are real, for example, occupying space, and they are dynamic, shifting and changing, at times menacing, at times like old friends, and hence in and of themselves have a certain intrinsic sublimity. Yet, they can only ever be two-dimensional. You cannot embrace and love a shadow. That is because they actually evidence fuller, three-dimensional bodies, and also beyond these bodies, of a distant, burning source of light and life.
The metaphor has wide applicability. Think of the physical body as the shadow and the soul as the fuller being. As Kant labored to prove, when we value someone,we really value their fuller being. In his words, the phenomenal is only the gateway to the nouminal: we know the fuller being through its shadow, which is why we work so hard to legislate due respect for it, although even then it is still ultimately the sacrosanctness of the fuller being that we are striving to honor and cherish.
Also, think of our total being — body and soul — as a shadow vis-à-vis the source of illumination — God. Indeed, think of the entire material universe in this way. It doesn’t cheapen ourselves or the cosmos to think in these terms; to the contrary, it reveals that we are actually the children of light, as well as its would-be suitors, naked and trembling in desire and fear:
O assemblage of shadows! Stand ashamed before My beauty, My might, My sovereignty and My grandeur. Turn your gaze unto the countenance of your Lord, the Unconstrained, so that you may find Me crying out among you with holy and cherished melodies. (Baha’u’llah, Lawh-i Nasir, tr. Buck).
Finally, the space between the shadow and the body, by the way, as well as between the body and the light, is also awash in photons and other invisible entities and constituent elements of reality. To begin with, this is an argument against rigid, experiential empiricism, which tries to uphold the merely measurable as the standard of reality. Anyone who knows real science knows that quantum physics has burst to pieces such a standard. There are far more meaningful empirical measures than what what our five senses immediately hold before us.
And secondly, it puts us in a further proper frame of mind in terms of our actual place in such an abundant cosmos. My acquaintance roared against how religion hubristically attempts to place humanity at the center of existence. She got the form of the argument right but its essence wrong: we are indeed just one part of a vast manifold, and by no means it center or most important element, but that is not an argument for our insignificance nor for the manifold being nothing more than human fancy.
To conclude, my acquaintance kept reiterating how she didn’t want to “argue” with me,when all I was trying to do was discuss. Discussion, of course, requires questions, and I think I was asking some very difficult questions, although I was trying to do it gently and honestly. In the end, she would have none of it.The way in which she was already so mentally closed broke my heart.
So, I suppose, this blog isn’t so much an attempt to convince her, as much as I’m taking the experience as an opportunity to elucidate my own viewpoint. In the end, I refuse to believe that existence must be a zero-sum game, a world of only light or only darkness. I want there to be shadows, because they are so much more tantalizing and interesting.