Monday, December 12, 2011

The Essentially Tragic Human Condition

I have many religiously devout friends and acquaintances.  Here is a short note I wrote yesterday in response to an Army Chaplain acquaintance (former client) who sent me a Facebook message containing a photo of a bumper-sticker with a religious message on it:

Dear ___________________,

Thanks for sharing that bumper-sticker quote with me:  "We are not human beings having a spiritual experience.  We are spiritual beings having a human experience."

I agree that we all have a spiritual side but I see no evidence that it survives our deaths. I don't remember my purely spiritual existence before I was born and I join Thomas Jefferson in believing that our spirits -- which I would simply call our capacity for self-awareness and our knowledge that we will all die -- are "corpuscular." The idea of a spirit existing independent of a physical body strikes me, in my humble opinion, as irrational to the point of absurdity.  I guess what I am saying is I don't believe in ghosts.  What happens when we die?  I'm not sure.  But on the available evidence, we rot. (Shout out to the late, presumably rotting, Madalyn Murray O'Hair.)

I share your sense of the sublime when it comes to the stars and the mountains. I am quite a fan of star-gazing on clear moonless summer evenings while camping in Pike National Forest.  But one can contemplate the great mysteries without believing absurd things about the universe, such as, it is only 6,000 years old. There are cave paintings older than that.  Geologists actually have a scientifically plausible explanation for where those mountains came from as my son learned when he visited the Garden of the Gods Visitor's Center in first grade with his Cub Scout Pack.

The human condition is essentially tragic. We are all going to die, and worse, we know it.  All religion and philosophy are attempts, in my humble view again, to grapple with this fact. The efforts of pre-scientific people writing thousands of years ago were the best the human race could do at that time. But in my own grappling with man's essentially tragic fate, I prefer not to limit myself to the teachings of the Bronze Age.  These people were mired in terrible ignorance -- having not even the good sense to keep their excrement out of their food. (Shout out here to Sam Harris.) There is some wisdom in the Bible, even in the mostly abhorrent Old Testament. But there is also wisdom in Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Dickens, Tolstoy, Voltaire, Jefferson, Wordsworth, Darwin, Einstein, and too many others to name. All of these humans, including the very human authors of the Bible, have something to say to us from their own quests to come to terms with our essentially tragic fate.

I don't need final dogmatic answers to the great questions. I am satisfied pondering what history’s great thinkers have had to say about it. I am willing and able to admit, ultimately, that "I don't know." This, in my view, is a far more intellectually satisfying answer (and a far more intellectually honest one) than saying, with dogmatic certainty: "an incomprehensible being using incomprehensible powers made it so." That does nothing for me.  Nothing.