“In this Day the secrets of the earth are laid bare before the eyes of men. The pages of swiftly-appearing newspapers are indeed the mirror of the world. They reflect the deeds and the pursuits of divers peoples and kindreds. They both reflect them and make them known. They are a mirror endowed with hearing, sight and speech. This is an amazing and potent phenomenon. However, it behoveth the writers thereof to be purged from the promptings of evil passions and desires and to be attired with the raiment of justice and equity. They should enquire into situations as much as possible and ascertain the facts, then set them down in writing.” — Baha’u’llah, Tarzát #6
When I was in the Alps, I had a productive conversation with a young Italian student who is doing her doctoral work at the Sorbonne. She was curious about my opinion on the “faith and reason problem” as a “religious philosopher” (i.e., a philosopher who is religious and who thinks about religion). I was surprised by my answer.
Louise, I went as fast as I could. You were drawing your final, heavy breaths, while I was drawing ancient, arcane syllogisms. This was our last chance to speak together in this life. We understood that all too well, and so I hurried, disentangled myself from logic and leapt across the ocean. Yet, in the end, we missed each other. I could not shake loose the tethers quickly enough, and your last smoky breath slipped away.
Humanity often ponders over her mortality, and she thinks she knows “all too well” the deep link between the material and the temporal. She doesn’t, not really. Aristotle and Einstein, though, they were individuals who did truly understand: time is matter. ‘Abdu’l-Bahá explains them best, writing, “This state of motion is said to be essential–that is, natural; it cannot be separated from beings because it is their essential requirement, as it is the essential requirement of fire to burn.”
We can think of this two ways, first, that existence and motion are co-extensive, quite quantumly and ontologically so. We sat beside each other at the Pesach table, Louise, as we frequently did, and yet all along we were also speeding past one another. Descartes saw the truth but could not bear it, that proximity is real at only one level of understanding and experience; at another, we are constituted of nomadic existents, and so we journey in unseen lands.
Or, second, as Bahá’u’lláh has written, that fate is of two varieties, one irrevocable, the other revocable by divine decree, that is, in response to prayer and entreaty. In this life, we are marked by a tantalizing and terrifying obscurity, for we can never know with certainty which of these might constitute any given event. The author who pens our story loves us dearly and adheres as best He can to the contours of our innermost narratives, yet He still has a plot to maintain, as well.
These two interpretations intersect for me in you, Louise, my aunt, the grandmother I never had. And in that junction, this summation by Bahá’u’lláh solemnly speaks true: “Thou hast committed into mine hands a trust from Thee, and hast now according to the good-pleasure of Thy Will called it back to Thyself. It is not for me, who am a handmaid of Thine, to say, whence is this to me or wherefore hath it happened, inasmuch as Thou art glorified in all Thine acts, and art to be obeyed in Thy decree.”
Thus, with your passing, I understand a little more, and I also understand a little less. Hegel would simply smile and nod, I’m sure. Yet, through the shifting mists of insight and confusion, things unsaid, things that only you and I, as the professional philosophers of the Schwartz clan, could share and love, begin to echo through.
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.
What happens when an illusion becomes cognizant of its nature as a mirage? Is it then really such an illusion after all, or does it actually have some kind of reality, something that persists beyond its own transience? I think it does, and I put the question to Averroes and Spinoza.