Since it’s past three in the morning and I can’t sleep, I figure I’ll begin to tackle an idea that Aunt B. touched on the other day at Tiny Cat Pants:
Now, I believe that the mind is the intersection of body and soul and that, sometimes, the key to hearing from your soul is to get the body out of the way, and the key to hearing from your body is to get the soul to stay quiet. And I also believe that, when things are working well, your body and soul should be in alignment, and thus your mind works well.
But if you are out of sorts, which I have been for a while, you can lose track of how either body or soul are doing.
I was drawn to this statement because it called to mind an idea my teacher raised a few weeks ago in my American Founding course. He delineated a progression of what we’ll call modern philosophy– as clearly distinguished from the philosophies of the ancients like Plato and Aristotle– which he submits took shape with Thomas Hobbes, then broadened with Rousseau, and finally metastasized with Nietzsche. I’m severely mangling my teacher’s well-constructed argument for the sake of expediency here, and I suggest you go on your own and take a brief look at the three philosophers’ ideas in order to get a better idea of what Mr. Shapiro was describing. However, it will suffice to say that I have no bone to pick with his analysis. His larger point, if I understand it, is that we just don’t think the same way the founders of the U.S. thought. The progression he illustrated was intended to demonstrate that, if not to explain it comprehensively.
With all the requisite caveats implied, I would add a pessimistic wrinkle to Mr. Shapiro’s analysis. I was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness, and that particular Christian sect has its own philosophy about the nature of man. According to the Witnesses, the first human pair were created in perfection. Though the Bible does not reveal much about what it was like to be a ‘perfect’ human being living without internal or external influence of ‘sin,’ it is clear about the consequences of Adam and Eve’s rebellion. According to the Witnesses, ‘sin’ is more than just a choice or a tendency; it is a congenital defect endemic to all human beings.
The Bible makes clear that sin and death are inextricably linked, and that all humans are destined to suffer both. The Bible also states that the ‘last days’ (before the Apocalypse, that is) will bear witness to a fairly high concentration of awful human behavior. Unless I’m forgetting something, though, the book does not specify that there would be a progressive decay of the human moral condition. This is an interpretation of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and it is one that is more implied than stated openly; one might say it is taken for granted within the culture of the faith. I recall that my mother stated– more than once– that we (those of us alive today) are “bottom of the barrel human beings.” Her meaning, in the context of the Witnesses’ doctrine, was clear: we are the furthest removed from the perfection of our original parents, so we are the most flawed.
This way of thinking inverts Mr. Shapiro’s construction. He contends that the ancient Greeks believed in the divinity of man, and that the modern thinkers rejected such mystical notions in favor of a more earthly, animalistic approach. I believe most historians would agree with Mr. Shapiro, if not with his chosen points of emphasis. At any rate, the Witnesses share the ancient Greeks’ view of humanity’s divinity (though in a monotheistic context). They view secular humanist philosophy much the way most fundamentalist religious sects do; it is something to be eschewed.
While I don’t cling doggedly to any particular belief system, I must confess that the cosmic view of the Jehovah’s Witnesses has definitely shaped my own perception of the world. Where some see phenomenal leaps in human advancement, I can’t help but also to see frightening reminders of our fragility and corruption. Show me Albert Einstein, and I’ll show you Robert Oppenheimer and Harry Truman. Show me Mohandas Gandhi, and I’ll show you Henry Kissinger. Show me a man on the moon, and I’ll show you Bhopal and Bubbly Creek.
Are we any worse than those civilizations that preceded us? We have made incredible strides in our understanding of the universe. We have also been remarkably inventive when it comes to abusing, neglecting, and exterminating each other, and we have been horrifically wanton in our continuing destruction of the biosphere. In other words, no era of human existence has seen greater cruelty and willful ignorance accompany its manifestations of genius.
So where, in my view, does this leave us? Where does it leave me? The Jehovah’s Witnesses believe that all of human history has been played out to answer a challenge made by the Devil to God: namely, whether God has the right to rule the universe (including humanity). The ability of mankind to rule himself has been the test. (I suppose this doctrinal cornerstone isn’t all that distinct from that of any other religion, Christian or otherwise. It is that with which I am most familiar, however, and much of it remains the reference point for my own perspective of the universe.) Have we ever earned more than a failing grade, or even so much as a ‘gentleman’s C’?
Even one of the arguably nobler and more ambitious efforts at human self-rule– the U.S.– was from its inception fraught with hypocrisy and corruption. Though it has survived for over two centuries– a cosmic cigarette break, really– it is currently on the verge of collapse, if I am to be believed.
Are the Witnesses (and much of Christendom) correct? Is this all just a doomed-to-fail experiment? If so, why do we– even many among us who consider themselves devout Christians– still participate in the experiment? Are we hedging our bets, or is our faith a dogged self-delusion?
I haven’t the foggiest idea. I do know that like Aunt B., I often feel that I’m out of alignment somehow. It isn’t always that my body and ‘soul’ aren’t in sync; often it’s more like the whole world is badly off-kilter, and there isn’t squat I can do about it. I feel as though my existence is a cruel prank compared to what it should be, and that the terrifying punch line will be death. The religion of my upbringing was supposed to bring comforting meaning and order to this existence, and answers to all the requisite questions, but obviously the religion didn’t take. The nagging little space between belief and faith– announced by an unnerving, conspiratorial whisper in my psyche when I was a child– has widened into a chasm so vast that I usually avoid approaching either side.
But then, that’s really why I do this blogging. Too much navel-gazing about the aforementioned issues can drive one insane, and that is not a good thing. It is better– easier and safer, anyway– to focus on the tangible results of those issues and point accusatory fingers at the most obvious offenders. It may not put the universe into proper alignment (whatever proper alignment might be), but at least I get to blow off some steam, and I don’t get dizzy when I stand here.