Just the Way Things Are

What follows [this will serve as an introduction to Humility is Endless] is an expression of my love both for religion and for the world, and how the experience of each can make us rigid and intolerant and certain, but also selfless and filled with empathy and understanding for others.

Both our experience of religion and of the world are almost entirely uncertain and precarious. As a prominent Anglican scientist put it, just as we cannot prove anything about God with mathematical certainty,

so there are many things that each of us here tonight believes to be important, [even though] we know we simply cannot prove them with the certainty that comes with two and two make four…. And that is just the way things are: [that] in most areas of life, beliefs that really matter … cannot be proved in that strict logical sense … even though we are very committed to them, and they matter profoundly to us.[i]

If this book has one aim, it is to illustrate this very point over and over: that certainty in our institutions, cultural opinions, and religions do not exist, and that immense amounts of human suffering are caused by pretending otherwise. And further, that fanaticism and violence are not on the fringes of culture or society or religion, but are embedded in our foundational scriptures, in our laws, and in our art, just as much as calls for nonviolence and love and compassion are.

Religion, law, and culture are all only a matter of interpretation and reinterpretation, selection and choice. The only way, as one Rabbi put it, to “create a book which an interpretive community for thousands of years [can] find nourishment and meaning in,”[ii] is to realize that, without changing one word, its meaning is nevertheless fluid and uncertain and always changing.

Divine permission for both compassion and violence can be found in all scriptures, and sometimes can be drawn from the exact same passages. The great struggle of religion is not to deny this, but to choose which interpretation, which passages, we prefer. In this world, where religion, law, culture, or just hallowed tradition are provisional and conditional and temporary, no religion or country or critic can say definitively that any belief or expression or ritual is wrong, if they are only citing an equally uncertain and provisional belief or expression or ritual themselves. Authority comes not from proclaiming this or that, but from choice and action.

Religion, then, is primarily moral, but not because it provides us with a consistent, universal morality. It is moral because religion presents, as nothing else does, the uncertain, inexact, and unreliable nature of life in the world. Emptied of certainties, the varieties of religious experience and doctrine provide the greatest opportunity for morality, for being decent in an unsure world.

What this means for me is that our wars and disagreements over religion; over dogma and doctrine; over one group dismissing another as wrong, and then evil, and then as inhuman, and then as unfit to live; and our cultural and political equivalents of these—these are tragedies only because the supposed facts behind them simply do not exist, and yet billions of human beings have suffered and died horribly (and continue to) by our pretending otherwise. No one has the right to tell anyone how to live, to worship, or to think, and yet for most of human history this is all we have done, in our terrified retreat from uncertainty.

Rather than a reason to deny religion, or to proclaim the futility of the world or of life, such an uncertain condition is actually the best opportunity for religion and for life in the world—and therefore, for compassion, for humility, for empathy.

Rather than a reason to deny that morality or meaning of any kind exists, such an uncertain condition actually shows how much meaning there really is, and how difficult decency is to achieve. That beauty and meaning and decency should exist in a world with certain rules and guidelines isn’t much of a miracle; but that beauty and meaning and decency should exist in a world that is so uncertain, so conflicted, and such a mess—that is a miracle.

A British scientist put it this way: “There is no absolute knowledge. And those who claim it, whether they are scientists or dogmatists, open the door to tragedy. All information is imperfect. We have to treat it with humility. That is the human condition.”[iii]

The human condition, in other words, is not one of power or dominance or certainty, but of humility; and if of humility, then of uncertainty; and if of uncertainty, then of empathy. Only the most certain people can be selfish, and pretend only they exist; but only in a condition of uncertainty can we recognize others as ourselves, and see we are all in this together. If there is any God at all, our best devotion is in our devotion to each other.

That same scientist, visiting the place where many of his family members had been killed, said as much:

This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods….. I owe it as a human being to the many members of my family who died at Auschwitz, to stand here by the pond as a survivor and a witness. We have to cure ourselves of the itch for absolute knowledge and power. We have to close the distance between the push-button order and the human act. We have to touch people.[iv]

And a survivor of Auschwitz said just as much. If, at the end of all our exploring, the best human beings can do is choose beliefs which can only be paid for by the certainty of everyone else’s error and deficiency, the death camps are always near:

Many people—many nations—can find themselves holding, more or less wittingly, that “every stranger is an enemy.” For the most part this conviction lies deep down like some latent infection; it betrays itself only in random, disconnected acts, and does not lie at the base of a system of reason. But when this does come about, when the unspoken dogma becomes the major premise in a syllogism, then, at the end of the chain, is the Lager [from Konzentrationslager, concentration camp]. Here is the product of a conception of the world carried rigorously to its logical conclusion; so long as the conception subsists, the conclusion remains to threaten us. The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal.[v]

 

 

[i] Alistair McGrath; debating Susan Blackmore, about 35:00 minutes in.

[ii] Rabbi David Wolpe; debating Sam Harris.

[iii] Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, 353.

[iv] Jacob Bronowski, The Ascent of Man, 374.

[v] Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz, 9.

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