Sunday, March 21, 2010

Songs of Void and Emptiness

As I reflected on the violence of organic life yesterday, and how oddly incompatible it is with the love of God and enemy, I found myself looking upwards into the refracted blue of the sky and thinking about all that which is not life.

Creation itself is mostly nothing. Even I, as I write this, am mostly nothing. Yeah, I'm an organic life form. But if you drill down to the atomic and subatomic level, the physical form that is currently typing this contains far more emptiness than neutrons and electrons. The keyboard onto which this is typed, for all of it's clackity solidity, is also mostly nothing. But we miss this, because our perception is so limited.

As we look out into the immensity of the cosmos, that emptiness finally strikes us. It is at a scale that we cannot grasp, of a vastness of temporal and spatial measure that goes well beyond our ability to conceptualize. We can get a bit of it, through metrics and analogies. But the reality of it is well beyond the capacity of our minds to grasp.

And it isn't just empty of mass. It's empty of measurable feeling. It is, to us, both terrible and beautiful...but is completely oblivious of those categories. Love and hatred and loss and joy are not words that have any relevance to the lives of stars, or in the aeons over which a nebula dissipates. Though the mechanics of physics govern this immensity, and they can be grasped rationally, those natural laws are not themselves "reasoned." They simply are.

The resultant interplay of those forces also cannot be meaningfully described in terms of interpersonal or social morality. When tectonic plates shift, and a city crumbles or vast waves scour the land, and hundreds of thousands die, it is not malicious. Or cruel. Or hateful. It just is. When atmospheric conditions produce intense tornadic activity, and a town is razed, it is not that creation is feeling peevish, or is angry with the town for not being tougher on crime. It simply is what it is.

The vastness of the heavens and the interplay of matter and energy aren't moral or ethical. The music of the spheres is atonal, jarring, and disinterested in the needs of it's audience.

This poses an interesting paradox to the contemplative person of faith. Why?

Because when one spends time emptying self of self, and letting awareness of all things silence the endless internal jabbering of thought for a while, when you return from that peak state you return changed. But you are changed in a way that does not seem to reflect the great cool amorality of physics. Mystics are not hard-nosed pragmatists, or mechanistically utilitarian in their approach to other creatures. It has a rather different effect.

Confronted with creation's vast, near-chaotic dynamism, one becomes calm. Immersed in it's amorality, other beings suddenly matter more. After embracing that which knows no care or love, deep compassion for others is stirred. It is...paradoxical.

St. Augustine once famously called creation the First Book. As he and Calvin both affirmed, it's a nearly impossible book to read and comprehend...thus the need for our sacred texts to guide our understanding.

But perhaps it's not a book the way the Bible is a book, written in symbol. Perhaps it's more like a song, which is best understood not through analysis and deconstruction and debate, but by simply being still and listening.


  1. "Confronted with creation's vast, near-chaotic dynamism, one becomes calm. Immersed in it's amorality, other beings suddenly matter more. After embracing that which knows no care or love, deep compassion for others is stirred."

    Amen, brother.

  2. Creation is not mostly nothing. While it may look to us as (partially) physical creatures it is easy for us to forget that Creation is mostly space. And I don't mean just outer space but a 4 dimensional world: length, width, height and time. None of these were present before the big bang.

  3. @ Pastor Bob: True, it is mostly space...both at the macrocosmic level and the subatomic level. On the one hand, that is emptiness...hence the thrust of this post. Yet that emptiness is given form and structure by matter, to which emptiness now stands in relation. Emptiness is also not now truly "empty," as it is suffused with the forces and energies that define the interplay of matter. It is no longer formless void, as you and I well know.

  4. This post really resonates with me, particularly the bit I quoted above, because I think it is a pretty good description of one of the ways in which the ethics that you and I (mostly) share emerges out of atheism. If feeling compassion and empathy after contemplating the awesome scale and indifference of the cosmos is "mysticism" then I guess I'm a mystic. And so are my most of my atheist heroes... Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, Hitchens, Sagan, deGrasse Tyson, Feynman, Crane, Clemens...

    I suspect you are already bristling at the suggestion, but since you call at the end of your post for setting aside deconstruction for a bit to listen, I wonder if you might listen to me now. Because as much as I'd like to understand how it is that you believe what you believe, I also hope that you might come to understand what I believe, and why I think that we are not so different.

    I wouldn't want to call my kind of revelation "mysticism." And clearly, there are other differences. For me, it is born out of our capacities for empathy and reason, which we know now, are evolved. We can have an imperfect sense of what it is to be the Other, and this allows us to choose to be compassionate. Thinking this way, our compassion TRULY isn't coerced. (In the case of Clemens' greatest character, Huck Finn, it is in spite of coercion to do the wrong thing). There is no supernatural threat (or bribe) to compel it. It is born purely out of solidarity with our fellow natural beings when we recognize that we are all in the Open Boat together. Life is short, and there is no justice but that which we make together, and we have no one but each other to love. That is reason enough.

    The good news is that while the cosmos is mostly empty of matter, it nonetheless holds more marvels and awesome beauties than we could ever hope to get bored with in a barely finite number of lifetimes. The emptiness is merely a substrate for the myriad wonders. Similarly, though the cosmos may seem to be ethically empty, it is on this blank canvas that we can, if we wish, make our mark.

    Your mark and my mark are remarkably similar, and I think are even motivated by the same things. In fact, we often have more in common with each other than either of us do with some of your coreligionists. And I say "either of us" because I know that you are in the habit of drawing that equivalence: "fundamentalist atheist." But what I really am is not a fundamentalist. I am a guy just like you who marvels at the scope of the indifferent universe and comes away feeling a greater desire to love my neighbor as myself.

  5. "thinking about all that which is not life"

    I have actually come to the opposite conclusion.

    When looking at the atomic and subatomic level and finding no difference between myself and the universe around me, with its vast empty spaces, the vastly empty atoms that come together to form me, and not just me but whole galaxies of galaxies, the only difference I find between me and the rest of the universe is the difference I see between me and my hand. I lay it on my keyboard and type these words because somewhere an electron chose to jump an energy state.

    I am the self aware part of me. The part of me that looks in the mirror and sees itself. Atoms coming together to see and think and love and appreciate themselves.

    And that is our role in the Universe itself.

    Life is what binds it all together. Forming and reforming ourselves, digesting and subducting, swirling in cauldrons of bile and supernovas, Life marches on.

    We are all alive.

  6. @ Jodie: Actually, I'm not so far off from your perspective, though the particular flavor of this post may seem otherwise. There is something in contemplating the nature of being that inspires that effect...but it is not grounded in rational analysis. It's a deep intuition, one that speaks to the role and purpose of we who are aware that we are aware. The paradox...if there is that our deepest morality derives from this vast and seemingly unfeeling interweaving of matter and void and energy.

    Love is, as you say, our role in the fabric of being. It's why we were created.

    @ Browning: What you're saying here sound remarkably like Bertrand Russell's take on faith. If it was fundamentalist,dogmatic, doctrinal, and encouraged petty hatreds and sociocultural oppression, it was to be resisted with extreme prejudice. If it seemed rooted in joy at the glory of being, and in that tore down the boundaries between peoples...well...then he still didn't buy it. But neither did he see it as a thing worth attacking, any more than it would make sense to shout down Bach's Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring or to egg the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

    It is quite remarkable how much more simpatico we are when you take off your atheist hat and put on your humanist hat. Not surprising, of course, given how much jauntier and aesthetically pleasing that hat happens to be. But a pleasant shift, nonetheless. :0)

  7. @David. Okay. Thanks for the fashion advice. But it's the same hat.

    The "new" atheists are very explicitly against shouting down Bach and egging the chapel as well. That is fundamental to the platform of everyone I mentioned. But there is some considerable daylight between that sort of thing and merely criticizing religion. I suppose that religion has had its own way for so long that all criticism seems like an attack.

    But few people on our side of the aisle is particularly interested in "attacking" your version of faith. To the extent that religion is benign, then live and let live is the order of the day. In fact, I think everyone over here wishes that more theists were like you. If that were so, there would be no atheist movement, or, at the very least, it would have considerably less urgency. It would a pleasant, modulated debate between Thomas Merton and Bertram Russell over a cup of tea.

    But that is not the world we live in. Progressive, liberal theism is generally pretty benign by itself, but insofar as it provides a cover or an excuse for the more dangerous forms, then we will no longer refrain from expressing our differences with faith. And we can't express our argument with the pernicious forms of religion only on your terms, which make no sense to us, even if we are Bertram Russell. Religion is not immune from criticism, nor should it be. You are no longer entitled to a world where guys like me know our place and keep our mouths shut. And, no, you don't get to claim any more that morality is outside the purview of science, or that its best example can be found in the Bible. Try not to take it too personally. Our real argument is mostly with the same people as you.

    That is, again, because I don't think we are so very different. And that's why I am interested in understanding the boundaries of our differences.

  8. @Browning,

    I echo David's response to your post at 9:02. I would have suggested it was inspired by the Holy Spirit, but you would not like that, I guess. I would have meant it as a compliment.

    But it reminds me that by and large, the act of worshiping Jesus on a pedestal is distracting, and causes one to not really absorb the full measure of his message. Truthfully, it was anti-religious and extremely humanistic. Kind of like your post.

    The same is true by the way, if one worships Scripture and puts it on a pedestal. You can't really wrestle with or absorb something or someone if all you want to do is worship it.

    (My church often is visited by movie celebrities. It always amazes me how distracting a person's celebrity status can be. But if you are distracted by it, you can never get to really know them at all)

    So I would defend your position. I like it. It embodies what I believe Jesus was saying anyway, and it keeps us religious folk honest. I am not bothered by your atheism. And if I am right and there is a God, I am sure God is not bothered by it either.

    In my own fantasy of the afterlife version of the Kingdom of God, there will be lots of people just as surprised to be there as there will be those surprised not to be.

  9. Thank you, Jodie.

    I think that is very generous and beautiful thing to say, and I accept it as a compliment. It feels sincere and rings true to me, and it pleases me very much that we can differ on the details, but still agree with each other about what is important, what is profound.

  10. Beautiful reflection. But even knowing that there is much emptiness and not much natural morals it doesn't take the facts of live away ( or to cite Woody Allen: Men does not live by food alone, sometimes there must be a beverage..) - I think although what we're made of is maybe an illusion, still it has its own rules, like food, to be followed if you accept to live this illusion. Maybe the compassion coming from this realization makes you more aware of the value of life and of it's limits and of the fellow humans caught in front of the cave wall ( there wasn't a TV set at Platon's time).

  11. @ Browning: Ah, but they're not really the same hat, at least not if you spend any time listening in on the atheist/humanist debating over at Atheism is not an ethical system. It is, as I have been reminded over and over again by atheists, simply the state of not being theist. What you are describing is humanism. That can be atheistic too, of course. So be it. But a love for humankind is where we resonate and that deep intuitive awareness that sentient beings are "better" when they stop tearing at one another and work to build one another up.

    As for criticism, absolutely. One of the flaws in "liberal" faith is it's timidity in using our understanding of the tradition to aggressively resist the destructive and oppressive elements within our faith. If anything, I'm more vested in that process than y'all, 'cause it's where I live.

  12. Well, it's true that "atheism" is properly defined as disbelief in gods. But my hat is not merely an atheist hat. It is the hat of the "new atheist" movement. (Though I, like the rest of my comrades, are not very fond of that "new" designation either. There is some interest lately in defining ourselved as "affirmative atheists." I don't love that either, but I find it less objectionable than "new" or "neo-atheist." So to save me from typing more quotation marks, let's go with it.)

    The affirmative atheist movement (as I understand and subscribe to it anyway) is not motivated by disbelief in gods for its own sake. Nor is it motivated by any animus with religion qua religion. It is expressly motivated by humanism to oppose religion only insofar as it impedes humanist goals, such as truth, peace, equality, justice and the survival of the human species.

    When you say that you are fully vested in opposing the destructive elements of your faith, then I say that our goals are exactly the same. You and I are more naturally allies than enemies. The problem is that you want to reform your tradition one set of arguments from within the tradition, and I have no use for those arguments. They don't ring true to me. I have no choice but to make my case my own way, and that means criticizing the flawed data you share with the fundamentalist, and irrational appeals to faith in general. I can see why that would make you uncomfortable, but that's not really my problem. When we live in a world where the threats of religious fundamentalism are existential, and your comfort in this matter is a luxury neither of us can afford. When you long for the quiet, polite atheist whose differences with theism are complacently academic -- as I've seen you do -- you fail to recognize me as your natural ally in the struggle that you claim to be the most important thing, the core of your faith. And that causes my argument with you to become relevant to the larger struggle.

    It's an interesting and difficult conundrum, I know. But I guess what I'm saying is that I'm calling for you to recognize that we are not so different, and also, paradoxically, that our similarities are not merely in evidence when I am quiet, polite and seemingly indifferent to your beliefs.

  13. @ Browning: I'm not sure those are my expectations. I'm quite willing to joust with the surly, truculent, and doctrinaire atheist, the one who takes umbrage at every remark and rails and rants. It's combat, and combat can be bracing and interesting to thems of us with XY chromosomes.

    However, I prefer the polite atheist, and not because they're a submissive milquetoast, a godless Colmes to my Jesus Hannity. It's because I generally enjoy the company of friends to that of folks who are screaming at me. That doesn't mean I expect atheistic conversation partners to harbor difference that are solely academic. Clearly, there are nontrivial variances of perspective, ones that aren't just figments of late night banter, but are deeply held.

    Being able to explore those openly and without invective is a good positive step. Being able to step past preconceptions and hostility towards the Other and really listening is kinda sorta a central ethic of my faith...and, conveniently enough, something that also facilitates rational discourse.

    As you note, admitting commonality wherever it can be found is quite helpful on that front.

  14. @David.

    I guess polite is a slippery word in this context. I also think we should be polite in our discourse, up to a point. And I hope you feel that I have been with you. (I have trouble being polite when people are, for example, pouring acid on children to exorcise their demons, and the like, and I don't feel very sorry about it either.) And perhaps we atheists could benefit from looking to the Biblical prophets, including the Savior, who were always able make their points without ever resorting to mockery, ranting or invective. :) But polite can also mean "If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all." That's the sense I was disparaging.

    I guess I am thinking mostly about this post of yours from some time ago:
    I was reminded of it when you said that you prefer me when I am, according to you, hardly being an atheist at all, but merely a humanist.
    (I never posted a response at the time because life got in the way, but I still think you misunderstand what it means to be an anti-theist in Hitchens' sense of the word. I think I could make a very strong case that you are actually a Hitchensian anti-theist in your own way. I hope you would agree that there are gods that you do not merely disbelieve in, but would actively oppose if they were real.)

    In any case, I think what I'm getting at is that what you call neoatheism is actually atheism motivated and activated by humanism. And if it can be considered impolite, it is because of its sense of outrage and urgency towards the same things that you find urgent and outrageous--the crimes, that is, against the things that you claim are at the core of your faith. So I guess what I'm also saying is that I hope you might come to appreciate the "neo-atheist" not only because you enjoy the verbal combat with him -- not merely as an entertaining adversary who is so mean-spiritedly wrong that he deserves of whatever trouncing you can give him -- but because you might come to understand that the vigor with which he makes his case is more in concert with your own deepest beliefs than you previously realized.

    But I have just read your latest post on Sam Harris, and I am delighted to see that we really do seem to finding common ground. We're getting there.

  15. @ Browning: Yeah, the prophets were real good about whuppin' on injustice, as was Jesus. Taking out your lickin' stick is a necessary thing now and again. I seem to recall reading that in Freud somewhere...

    But if that's all there is, it gets old.

    Actually, I've been able to find "common ground" with many atheists. It's not hard, so long as they're willing to try. Those are the fun ones. Not as folks you crush under the iron boots of your relentless logic, but as sparring partners who you get to know and like. You still try to trounce 'em, of course. You're just both having fun doing it.

    Some, to be honest, aren't in that category. They're not willing to be. The "glassy-eyed rage" thing just never abates. Those are the conversations best set aside. Into every life some trolls must fall, as they say. But they are not the majority.

    It's much the same with fundamentalists, once you get past the thicket of flak and dogma. Some of them will surprise you if you're willing to show them a little grace and forbearance. As will most people, frankly.

    Closer together? In some ways, yes. But I'm in the same place we were when we started chatting. As, I think, are you. That's not a bad thing. There's always been common's just a question of becoming aware of it. And coming into awareness of where you really are is a good place to be.