Friday, April 5, 2013

Roger Ebert is Going To Hell, and Other Hard Truths

It's been a bad week for writers I respect and enjoy.  First came the news from Scotland that Iain Banks, one of my very favorite hard sci-fi authors, has terminal cancer.  There will be no more Culture novels from his fertile mind, no more glorious pan-galactic tales of sentient AI starships and brilliantly realized alien intelligences.

And then yesterday, abruptly, the news of the passing of Roger Ebert.  I go way back with Ebert.  As a budding teen cinephile, I watched him go at it with Gene Siskel every single week.  This was in that long-ago era when you needed to set your schedule to make time for something you cared about.  Things of value did not come to you streaming, anytime, anywhere.  

They were more coy.  You had to seek them.  His insights were worth seeking.

He translated well into the 'net era.  That bastard cancer took his ability to speak, but it didn't take his mind, and his reviews of film and insights into culture remained cogent, smart, and graceful.

Earlier this week, I came across the announcement that he was moving on from his reviews...and from there, suddenly, that he had passed.

In my feed yesterday, there was a beautifully written piece from Ebert's own pen about his sense of his mortality.  He saw his own end as inescapable, and nonbeing as his destination.   He wasn't a Christian, not any more.  

I wouldn't concur with his view of mortality, of course, but the grace and thoughtfulness that suffused his self-penned eulogy were inescapable.  He'd found his way to a humble realism.   As he put it:

"I have no quarrel with what anyone else subscribes to; everyone deals with these things in his own way, and I have no truths to impart.  All I require of a religion is that it be tolerant of those who do not agree with it."

His worldview was not overtly my own, but from his own musings over the inescapability of death he'd come to that place where he viewed compassion and humility as central virtues.

Ebert's lovely benediction over his own life stirred interestingly in with some recent reflections I've been doing over my own work.  

Here I am, working with my editor on this absurdly ambitious book about faith and the multiverse, that fascinating new take on the nature of existence itself.  On my darker days, I look at what I'm writing and shake my head.  It seems so desperately impractical, written on a scale so far beyond the day to day as to be almost insane.

And yet on my lighter days, I find myself thinking exactly the opposite.  Thinking about being matters, because our view of the nature of things shapes how we live.  We are creatures of story, after all.   Our view of the universe, of creation, of the forces and shape of things, that view impacts how we live.  Most significantly, it impacts the choices we make, and the relationships we have with other sentient beings.

The story of life in the multiverse, for example, is one of freedom and generosity.  Such a creation humbles our certainties, stirs an aversion to speaking in absolutes, and offers us the joy of encountering realities beyond our own.   But there are other stories out there.

There are out there, for example, plenty of folks who would read Ebert's parting blessing to the world he loved being a part of, purse their lips, and shake their heads.  A pity, they'd say.  The cold hard truth is that he's in Hell.  Sorry, but that's just The Way Things Are.   For them, the universe is a binary equation, with their Truth on one side, and the fires of everlasting Heck on the other.  That is the story they tell themselves about their world, and it comes directly from their view of the universe.

As much as such souls might think they're serving the reality of my Teacher's call to radical compassion, I just can't see it.  Most dangerously, seeing reality in that way tears the grace and the mercy out of what he taught.  It shapes a soul away from compassion.

Other worldviews can tell equally dangerous stories.  There are those who see only themselves, and every other being is simply an object to slake their hungers and desires and greed.  There are those who look at the struggling and the poor and see only contemptible weaklings who deserve what they get.  There are those who look at the one with the funny accent or the strange clothing, and hate them for their difference.

But those absolutists, cold to compassion and dead to difference, are what turn our world into hell with their hard truths.

Ebert, bless his soul, was not one of them.   He had opinions, sure.  But he understood what made for a good story.  

Godspeed, and two thumbs up.

Oh, and like life, gaming is art.  But, as St. Peter reminded you recently, you know that now.