Thursday, April 08, 2010

From this the poem springs...

I have written here about Karen Armstrong's newest book, The Case For God (July 16, 17, 18, 2009). Jennifer Michael Hecht is the anti-Armstrong: her book makes the case for doubt. It is called, simply, Doubt.

The subtitle: The Great Doubters and Their Legacy of Innovation from Socrates and Jesus to Thomas Jefferson and Emily Dickinson. Clearly, she spreads her net wide. What all her doubters have in common is a tendency to march to their own drummer, to question received wisdom, and to examine the bases of their beliefs.

Great believers and great doubters may seem like opposites, says Hecht, but they are united in their engagement with the great questions of human life. They are both awake to the fact that we live between two divergent realities. On the one side, there is the world in our heads, a world of reason, love and purpose. On the other side, there is the world beyond human life, a world which shows no sign of caring or value, planning or judgment, love or joy. We live in a "meaning-rupture," says Hecht, because we are human and the universe is not.

Humans have a sense of fairness; the universe is anything but fair. Human seek answers; the universe poses only questions. "Consciousness itself seems missing in the wider universe," says Hecht, "and the human heart seems quite out of place. There is a serious weirdness to the mind, thinking amid the vast unthinking world." Or as I quoted Wallace Stevens the other day: "We live in a place that is not our own and, much more, not ourselves."

Well, there you have it: the meaning-rupture. Believers respond by transposing human characteristics onto the universe. Doubters wonder if we might not be better off weaning ourselves from invented narratives of cosmic personhood, justice and love. Believers resolve the "serious wierdness" by positing a humanlike God who bridges the rupture. Doubters suggest that mysteries are to be enjoyed, not solved, and that we will be happier if we regard the universe and existence itself as mysteries.

Nothing new to any of this, and nothing said on this blog or in Hecht's or Armstrong's books will resolve the rupture. Most people will continue to be believers for all the obvious reasons: it's consoling to think one knows the meaning of it all and will be rewarded for belief with life everlasting. Doubters will continue to nudge humanity along new and untrodden paths -- and some of those paths will in time become ossified beliefs. Still, in a world overwhelmingly dominated by anthropomorphic narratives of the universe, it is good to have a scholar as free-spirited as Hecht celebrate the equally grand but less often told history of doubt.