Is faith above ethics?

Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling is a challenging read, but gripping when you’re in the mood for that sort of thing.  The main thesis has something to do with faith being the greatest passion of human beings, that faith reaches beyond rational ethical doctrines, and that modern society is wrong to think that it can go beyond faith.  The faith exemplar is the biblical Abraham, who is asked by God to sacrifice his son, Isaac.  Abraham’s faith leads him to comply with God’s command, except that God stops Abraham from sacrificing Isaac at the last second.

Kierkegaard tries all sorts of psychological tricks to get us on board with his thesis.  He asserts repeatedly that he cannot understand Abraham, because Abraham is superior to him by virtue of his faith.  The implication is that if we think we understand Abraham, we are wrong, because not even Kierkegaard understands Abraham.  He asserts that if faith is not beyond ethics, then faith is nothing.  And if faith is nothing, then the story of Abraham is pointless.  So if we want to believe that faith is something special and that the story of Abraham is something special, then we must follow and agree with Kierkegaard that faith is above ethics.  Resorting to tricks like these raises red flags.  It suggests that the author knows something about the weakness of his thesis when it is presented straight and sober.

Another challenge is we are dealing with an analysis of stories, stories that explicitly defy the parameters of regular experience.  Why should we care about a world where God commands human beings to do unethical things, when we live in a world where God is silent?  Can faith be understood to be beyond ethics without the Abraham story?  If it can’t, and the Abraham story is pure fantasy, then who cares about Kierkegaard’s argument that faith is above and beyond rational ethics?

Nevertheless, I admit that there seems to be something important in this writing.  Is it possible that God might want mankind to go beyond ethics?  The idea itself creates fear and trembling.  Obviously, any attempt to go beyond ethics could very likely amount to falling below ethics.  But isn’t it an attractive idea that the universal rules of ethics are too clunky and cumbersome for the full color and vibrancy of the human spirit to emerge?  Not that we should be allowed to cheat the ethical rules, but that there are available extraordinary purposes in life that demand we hate ourselves, that we hate those we are expected to love, and concentrate our love in something higher?  For Kierkegaard, this seems to be in part what the Abraham story is suggesting (and echoed in Luke 14).  And this higher purpose is that we love only God and serve Him, setting aside our rational ethical obligations to our nation, our family, and ourselves.

I am aware of the semantical pitfalls in this presentation.  If a thing is contrary to what God wants of us, how could it be called ethical in the first place?  Kierkegaard works around this by distinguishing the universal from the absolute.  It seems just as well to say that one can think of a lower ethics and a higher ethics.  The lower ethics involve calculation, and include those rules that were everyone to live by, the world would be harmonious and just.  The higher ethics call on us not only to be compatible with a world that might be just, but to suspend all worldly calculation in service to God.

But there is a final piece to this, in order to account for the emphatic distinction Kierkegaard makes between Abraham, who is described as a knight of faith, and those others who are praised but would be better described as tragic heroes.  It is not faith, but tragic heroism, to sacrifice in order to save a nation.  It is not faith, but tragic heroism, to calculate and act for the sake of the outcome.  So what is faith, and why is it higher?  Faith is a personal, not a public or civic, virtue.  It is faith to believe that regardless of the immediate consequences, and regardless of public opinion, that God keeps His promises to those that trust, love, and serve Him.  Also, that these promises are kept in this world, not exclusively or primarily in the afterlife.  God promised Abraham Isaac in this world, and though God commands Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in this world, Abraham continues to believe that in obeying God, he will still have Isaac in this world, because this is God’s promise to him for his faith.  Abraham thus lets go of everything as it appears in the world, and in so doing proves his faith.

But does Abraham’s faith put him closer to God by leaving him willing to abandon rational ethics and sacrifice his son?  Are we all called by God to surpass our ethical inclinations?  Is it really not better to be a tragic hero, or even just a regular-old-good-person, than to have (this) faith?

Needing a (Way of) Life

Many of us have a sort of nagging restlessness that we’re frequently in need of escaping.  We need to be fully immersed in something, but nothing seems sufficiently appealing.  There is a deep trepidation that trying to immerse in the wrong thing will only intensify the restlessness, turning it into desperation.

Others of us are lucky enough to already be immersed.  We have a way of getting through the day that fully absorbs our attention and energies to a sufficiently satisfying degree.  We feel invested and are comfortable with the expected returns on that investment.  We don’t understand people that seem to feel so alienated from everything.  Why can’t they just live their life?  How difficult is it?

If we look at the different ways people immerse themselves, some patterns begin to emerge.  Some are very much into some sort of close-knit community, the members of which all have a thick sense of their common identity.  The group is strong, protective, and exclusive — maybe its just family, just friends (as in a fraternity or sorority), or some mixture of the two.  When these communities are big enough, functional, and healthy, they offer so many sources of stimulation and various social sensations that being actively in them can be fully immersing and satisfying.  Desperation only seeps in when too many of the members are too busy to congregate as a group.

An opposite way of experiencing immersion is through competition.  We see this sometimes with people who lose their community and instantly transition from a cooperative and loving posture to a competitive and hateful posture (as in bitter divorcees).  Competition is inherently stimulating, as you have to not only beat your opponents but also do so in a way that is viewed as legitimate.  The hate that is motivating the competition has to be channeled into virtues like focus, determination, perseverance without showing the vices of nastiness, weakness, and foolishness.  Executed correctly, though, hate for a person or group can be as fully immersive as thrivingly fraternal community.

I don’t know why we have this need for immersion, but we can see it everywhere.  Those lacking a community to join or oppose turn to other things.  Religious faith has unique qualities suitable for a deeply immersive experience.  Contemplation of an infinite being, with qualities of perfection exceeding human comprehension, to which we owe gratitude exceeding our capacity, from which we receive endless and unfailing love, can completely overwhelm the mind’s intellect and emotions.  And of course there are the immersive effects of drugs, alcohol, sex, pornography, food, gaming, and all the other addictions we see people all around us completely absorbed in.

Perhaps becoming more aware of the need for immersion can help us understand our attachments and our anxieties.  Less clear is what the best form of immersion is — it certainly can’t be hate and competition.  If the answer is community, then most of us are dependent on others to provide it, and the good fortune that there will be chemistry between ourselves and that community — common tastes, sense of humor, interests, values, etc.  If the answer is faith (which happens to be my answer) and we aren’t faithful already, then the road to be travelled is perhaps just as difficult.  If the answer is addiction, then we have a lot of pain ahead of us, and we have essentially given up on the fullness that life seemed to promise us as children.

On enthusiasm for the Bible, for Trump, and other things

Behold, the power of belief is revealed, and there, thrown aside, is the truth.

The word enthusiasm represents to many people energy and passion.  It has a more extreme sense, indicating a sort of enflaming of the spirit or becoming filled with spirit, or filled with a god.  Enthusiasm in sound and meaning is related to inspiration, to be inspired, to receive something from outside of one’s self of meaning and importance.

Trump rallies during the recent election were overflowing with enthusiasm, or, as Trump and many witnesses and journalists described it, love.  Attendees often experienced a sort of euphoria.

The Bible describes Jesus’ version of campaign rallies as creating similar sensations.  People shed tears of joy in his presence, and fall to his feet.  Their pains washed away, and they felt whole.

In both cases, belief in the power of another to heal one’s self is essential.  Jesus heals no one that does not believe.  To feel the joy, the excitement, the enthusiasm, the inspiration, belief is primary.  And this belief is contagious.  Seeing is believing, and being in the company of others who are visibly transformed, even if but temporarily, can be very compelling.

Is it a good thing or a bad thing to become enthusiastic?  One factor is whether the enthusiasm is sustainable.  An arthritic old woman attending a tent revival might feel healed in the moment but then shortly returned to her original misery.  Was the moment worth it?  It seems not.  More like a nasty tease.

Is enthusiasm ever sustainable?  It would seem so, if it is manifested properly.  The enthusiasm can keep burning if the belief that ignited it avoids counterfactuals.  The arthritic woman cannot keep believing for very long when her hands continue aching.  She may cling to the belief out of desperation and stubbornness, but the enthusiasm will die out.  In contrast, believing in Trump is believing we are on our way to a better place.  This is a belief that is more shielded from counterfactuals.  It is easier to convince one self that things are on the path to getting better, and to dismiss as part of the journey anything that starts going wrong.  It is easier to convince oneself that the leader or prophet is well intentioned and of good character, even in the presence of counterfactual claims, so long as the leader keeps denying those claims in a manner that is plausible and projects confidence.

Is believing in Trump like believing in Jesus?  If we apply the same reasoning, belief in Trump has serious disadvantages to belief in Jesus.  The counterfactuals to Trump’s vision will continue mounting up, because the vision is one of how the physical world–specifically the United States of America– is going to change over the next few years.  He resort to the blame game to possibly get a second term of office, but unless Trump can truly deliver, there will be no second and third generation Trump believers.  Belief in Jesus, on the other hand, seems completely immune from worldly refutation.  The Bible frames Jesus’ teaching as a moral and spiritual guide, not as a political playbook for national restoration.  To the extent that the Bible can make people feel morally empowered and spiritually accommodated, this sort of religious enthusiasm can burn for centuries amidst any worldly condition or series of events.

Belief in Jesus does face serious challenges of its own, however.  Believing in Jesus requires some sort of positive assessment of the accounts of Jesus’ divinity and the miracles he performed in the world.  The challenge is stark in a world where miracles have been debunked and banished from the minds of many people as even remotely possible.  To the extent that belief and enthusiasm are contagious among attendees at a revival or political rally, so too are disbelief and cynicism easily spread throughout a gathering, community, or entire civilization.  Christianity’s threat is more from widespread cynicism regarding its reports of miracles than it is from failing to deliver on its promises, which are otherworldly.  Its thread of connection to this world, the historical factuality of Jesus’s recorded miracles, is the weakness, as are the in-coming facts of Trump’s developing record for turning his promised campaign dream into reality, as are the facts of the tent revivalist’s ability to actually have healed the sick.  The particular facts that undergird any particular form of enthusiasm–be they religious or political in nature– are always vulnerable to assault from counterfactuals.

Returning to the original question of whether enthusiasm is sustainable and therefore possibly good for the individual experiencing it, it would seem the strongest form of enthusiasm is that which is most immune from counterfactuals.  Miracles having occurred long ago seem to fit the bill here much more than present miracles as in any tent revival healing  (which can be immediately debunked) or short-term prophesying, which either comes true or it doesn’t (and usually doesn’t).  Can people absorb–not fully accept, but see, hear, and understand– the counterfactual to Christianity that miracles likely do not exist and continue to believe in the Bible?

To answer this, I think we need to leave the question of sustainability of enthusiasm to the side and address the larger question head on of whether enthusiasm itself is a good thing. Perhaps if we see that it is a good thing, that helps answer whether it is sustainable.  To the extent that enthusiasm is inherently at war with counterfactuals, would it not be better to drop enthusiasm altogether and live in a world fully immersed in the intellectual experience of sorting through all of the facts of the world and rising above our flawed opinions and prejudices to the ever-emerging establishment of human knowledge?

It’s not so easy to reflexively say yes when we bring back into focus all of the good that enthusiasm does for people.  To be made whole, to be healed, to be inspired — is it rational to abandon all these things, only in order to embrace perhaps an existential ideal of the noble struggle of the hyper-rational soul, sick, lame and wounded, refusing crutches, bandages, balms, or potions of any kind?

Is there a good enthusiasm, one that truly helps its host, but avoids the horror of those enthusiasms that cannot be restrained by anything?  A good enthusiasm that avoids turning factual reality into an illusion and running roughshod over everyone and everything that stands in its way?  A good enthusiasm that is self-aware of its loosed relationship with factual reality, while remaining loyal and respectful of that reality?

 

A little bit of PTSD after Iraq

You never know what somebody else is going through.  Lots of veterans return home with some PTSD, but it is a hard thing to understand.  I had what I think was a little bit of PTSD in the immediate months after my first tour in Iraq.  Even with that, I have a hard time understanding the more intense PTSD experienced by other veterans.

A suffering veteran is a challenge for me, first in deciding whether or not to emotionally engage, and second in forming some sort of opinion about it.  The whole thing is damned complicated.  There are a lot of similarities to being around someone struggling with addiction.  You know that the suffering is real, but the person is probably not going to welcome you in.  In fact, the person may very pro-actively push you away or at least turn you off with something in their attitude.  People experiencing a serious problem like PTSD or addiction generally lack faith in any real solution.  But you’re still in pain, and you need to express it and for it in some way to be acknowledged by someone.  But you do that for selfish reasons, so it isn’t typically dressed up in good humor.  Actually, when you do engage with a person suffering and the conversation starts off good, you can almost guarantee once the conversation starts to lose momentum and the lack of easy solutions becomes excessively apparent, things can turn south fast.

My most classic shell-shocked sort of event was triggered by a car back-firing.  I always cringe a little mentioning it because it sounds so cliche, and cars don’t back fire as much as they used to, so it sounds made up.  Making up stuff, or at least exaggerating, is I think a temptation for any veteran that saw some action but not a ton, which is a category I put myself in.  So, given that the temptation is there, and being self-conscious about it, I feel more people’s scrutiny of the story.  Anyway, I heard the *bang!* and immediately crouch down besides / behind the person I am with, not really hiding behind them as much as pulling in close to them and getting low to the ground.  Sort of torn between acting instinctively and figuring out what the hell is going on, you can end up acting a little weird.  This was just a few weeks after getting back from a 15 month deployment, but up to that point really wasn’t aware of any underlying potential for that sort of thing to happen. I was just ecstatic to be back safe.

More of a recurring thing was being really sensitive to surprise — like someone being nearby when you thought you were alone and feeling a real shock of terror.  Another had to do with sleep.  I just slept weird, could be very tense sometimes, wake up sore from clenching or twisting into some odd position, but no nightmares or anything that I ever remembered.  Didn’t always do well between semesters after starting college.   Went down some dark paths in my head a time or two in those periods, feeling lost and wanting some sort of conclusion to everything to hurry along.

Which brings be to the other complicating thing about the PTSD veterans experience — I don’t know if they, like me, see a lot of it as a sort of maturation and intensification of problems they went into the military with.  I just don’t know much less than the problem is tough, and there are no easy solutions, or obvious things to say or do.  One time someone tried to confront me during a dark period and I was horrified by what I saw as a pointless invasion of my personal sort of exploration of the all-encompassing experience of misery I was swallowed up in.  I still haven’t really talked to that person since, because of that.  Even though I don’t hold any grudge at all over it, I have no idea how to initiate that reconciliation in a way that would be a net positive for the both of us.

Compared to many other veterans, I know my experiences weren’t nearly as intense or objectively traumatizing.  And, I was never physically wounded in combat.  I did not have to fire my weapon at the enemy but a few times across two deployments totaling two years in country.  I don’t think I ever shot anyone, and actually the thought that I might have, unknowingly, really bothers me sometimes.  You don’t know where those bullets go, or who they hit.  Some veterans, on the other hand, have lots of very traumatic experiences.  And they really are alone for the most part, because it is so hard to understand what they actually went through, how they are feeling, and how those two things are connected, independent of all the other stuff that happens in life.

I don’t want to just leave it there, so I’ll say that I think we just need to be attentive and available for each other.  The way forward sometimes is very hard to see, and has to be taken step-by-step, without any pre-determined outcomes — like things might just have to stay bad for a while, or indefinitely, and you still have to try to be attentive and available.  Not visibly and ostentatiously, but just enough to have a shot at helping the person if some progress becomes possible.

 

Twas the night before..

Flying out tomorrow to Massachusetts.  Have most of my stuff packed.  Am looking forward to a nice visit with family for Christmas.  It’s always weird “going back.”  There’s all the questions it raises — the question of belonging, as in where do I belong, where would I be happiest.  There’s the question of me — who am I?  Texan or Massachusetts guy?  This open question thing has been there awhile.  Before Texas and the doctorate and teaching and research, it was Iraq and Germany and the Army and deployments.  What is home?  Before that it was switching towns, switching schools, new this, new that.

The answer I settle on is it’s all water flowing in the river.  There is nowhere to “go back” to, because that place is gone.  The longer I live the more I believe that.  And it isn’t just “out there” that is changing, it’s also inside.  I’m not the same, and couldn’t have stayed so if I tried.  Can’t even remember that much, sort of like a comet with pieces flying off the main body and drifting out into empty untraceable space.  Just have a few things that come to mind if I try to remember.

What do I remember?  I guess usually the same few things, with the occasional recent addition.  Sort of a candidacy period with a new memory.  See how it hangs.  Anyway, the standard memories are shameful things for the most part, sort of a moral to-do list, though for most of them there isn’t any obvious thing I can do to fix.   So they linger there.  Some of them will be reinvigorated, more up-close-and-personal, being back in Massachusetts for a bit.  One thing that draws me back more than anything is a hopeful curiosity that something in these visits will change or transform these lingering memories into something different, less dead-end.  Probably won’t even notice for some time if that ever does happen.  Hard to separate it all out.  Lots of moving parts, when a part of your perspective is altered, and something that used to bother you doesn’t as much anymore.

On a brighter note, going back is an in-between-chapters-of-real-life sort of experience.  In that sense, it’s a sort of freedom, similar to Schiller’s idea of play being a sort of freedom.  It’s when everything becomes less determinant, less logical and serious.  The flow of “the river” slows down, and you’re suddenly just floating there, a comet coming to rest.  Disorientated.  Out of place.  But also free in a way.  Real yet still, simply, coming into being.

Do more people desire death or immortality?

Does everyone like being alive?  Happy people surely do, almost by definition.  If you’re happy, then you are apparently having a good time.  Nobody wants to stop having a good time, otherwise they wouldn’t call it “good” in the first place.  If you wanted it to stop, then you would call it a bad time, and you wouldn’t describe yourself as happy.

Some good times burn the fuse and we know they are temporary.  You can be having a good time at a bar but also want to go home because you feel yourself getting tired and run down, you feel the night slipping away, and that it is time to go home.  It doesn’t mean that you wanted the good time to stop.  It simply means that the availability of that good time had passed.  If you want to avoid having a really bad time the next day, you better get your self home.

With Christmas approaching, many people will both love and hate celebrating the holidays over the next few weeks.  They will love it because it is emotional in a  good way, they will hate it because it is emotionally exhausting.  It will be the best of times and the worst of times.  Some will be very sad to see it end, others will count themselves lucky to have survived it.  What makes us want to end an experience is bad feelings, what makes us want to continue experience is good feelings.

It is common to feel tired of life, but I have a hard time believing that people ever actually *want* to die.  Rather, my suspicion is people simply want to stop having a bad experience, and when life becomes a continuous, uninterrupted bad experience, they think they want to end life, when they really just want to end the bad experience–sometimes immediately.  Like staying too late at a bar, we begin to feel an exhaustion set in, and being able to get away becomes more and more attractive.

If both going to the bar and leaving the bar, rushing into the holidays and then desperately wishing them to be over, are both motivated by a desire to increase good experience and decrease bad experience, then the constant essence of our behavior would seem to include wanting to have as good experiences as possible.  We pursue happiness constantly, as much as we perceive as being available, and when anyone says they wish they were dead, they really mean they want to leave their current bad experience and go to a good, or at least better, experience.

The problem with desiring death is it implies desiring the end of existence, or oblivion.  Because oblivion is the absence of experience, we cannot imagine it, so we cannot feel in anticipating death any pain.  Death is expected to be pain-free.   If we are in pain in life, then we can think that we desire death, which is to say to simply be pain-free.  But having a pain-free experience is impossible if we cease to exist.  In other words, when we reason that death is desirable because it is pain-free, we are being non-sensical — failing to realize that by anticipating less pain “there” we are assuming a continued existence in death.  We might kill ourselves to escape experiencing pain, but it is not and cannot be to escape life or to “be” dead.  Therefore, no one desires to die, and everyone desires happiness and perpetual existence, i.e. immortality.

Loosening the Grip of Anxiety

We are thrown across the ground, and some of us land in good spots, others in bad spots.  We are scattered.  Where we find ourselves is not often where we want to be.  We would rather be somewhere else, somewhere much better.  Failing that, we would like to escape from where we are.  Escape away.  Unplug, unhook, and float away.

You could call this frustration, or anxiety.  The feeling itself can be dull and then spike.  Duration has a multiplying, paralyzing effect.  Each added moment contains a loud, screaming assertion of the unbearable now.

You feel caught, and it is easy to lose faith in a way out.  There usually is one.  But when you’re paralyzed, you need a pivot thought.  Something that creates some space to move.  For me, that thought is that this is how things are (temporarily) supposed to be, that the good I want is blinding me to the good that is available.

Your soul needs pleasure, but pleasure is a delicate mystery, always dancing within us and around us.  Your soul will lead you to it, help you unlock it, access it, if you can muscle out some thought on the opportunity of your situation — this strange spot you landed in when you were thrown across the ground.  If you lose faith in the presence of opportunity, you can fall into the trap of desperation.  Then we get forceful in indulgence, destructive of ourselves, welcoming of a quick escape, a joy pulse, and a subsequent numbed recovery.

We need to worry more about the trap than the relative apparent advantages of where we have fallen to and come to rest.  Embrace the freedom of denial and confusion.  It is just a transition, a uniquely human transition, to a uniquely human moment of insight into this mysterious existence.  There is special pleasure there, and it’s waiting for you.