I hope to start 2006 with an upbeat tone -- something bright and hopeful. For, indeed, I am a hopeful kind of guy. I believe in our future. I have to. I have kids.
Moreover, I deeply believe that true hope is engendered much less by absolute faith in a narrow set of prescriptive dogmas, than by the kind of curiosity, hard work and steady devotion to ambitious self-improvement that are obviously built-in to human nature, whether you think this happened via evolution or a grand design. That -- at least -- is the sermon taught by our long and fitful upward slog, from both Eden and the Caves, gradually coming to perceive and appreciate the dauntingly awesome complexity of this titanically vast Universe.
A complexity that we had better embrace. For no narrow doctrine can encompass it. Nor can any single mind grasp it. (Imagine the utter arrogance of those who claim that a few words, scrawled on ancient scraps of paper are the culmination of all discovery and revelation! Those words may be precious and offer some valid lessons. But to say “that’s all we need to know!” when obviously it’s a drop in the great sea....)
What seems to be possible is that together we can grope at the complexity -- like those blind men and the elephant -- reporting our findings to each other, criticizing and praising and comparing notes, combining insights from faith and reason and science -- and fearlessly throwing out whatever superstitions or failed hypotheses have failed to sustain. Continuing to build on the best old and new notions, testing and demolishing and rebuilding, so as to make even better our next shiny models of the world.
This process frustrates and terrifies millions of our neighbors, who need definitions that are prim and authoritarian, from Platonist philosophers to retro-dogmatists of all stripes. Those who need a sense of prescribed order range from Marxists to PC-postmodernists, to social darwinists, from market mystics, to Randians, to fundamentalists. To all of these prescription junkies, the enlightenment worldview seems vague, much too fluid, scattered, maybe even immoral.
But the ultimate sermon of our era is that this method works, far better than those of the past, when pyramidal hierarchies of sword-bearing aristocrats and domineering clergy told everybody else precisely how to behave. How to think. This new way is the only approach that has ever helped large numbers of people to thrive and do mostly good things, mostly of their own free will, despite our human propensity for rationalization and self-delusion.
This project is disdained by some as “humanism”... a new form of idolatry that raises and deifies Homo sapiens, aiming to topple God from his proper place as our loving guide. And there are a few caricature-types who go that route, never admitting that they are like their adversaries in many ways... that frenetic atheists are -- emotionally -- creepily similar to their hyper-religious foes.
No, it is possible to include God in fascinating discussing that admit the fundamental fact surrounding us. (I call it the Big Sermon.) The blatant ambiguity surrounding matters of faith. The fact that prayers, if answered, are answered within. Likewise “miracles.” Hence no one can ever truly and decisively prove or verify a darned thing. Indeed, the lesson must be that a benign Creator -- if one exists -- clearly chose ambiguity and distance for some reason. Not as a cruel and infantile “test of faith,” but as a very clear sermon that we are supposed to stand up look around, and figure things out for ourselves.
I will get to some of this later, in the “Twelve Questions” essay. But for now, I invite you to picture two versions of a beneficent Creator. One who cares about us and what we do.
--- Version one ferociously punishes anyone who dares to lift a head and question. This one damns to cruel torment anyone who fails to recite exactly the right set of incantations, in exactly the right way, with exactly the right mental attitudes. The jealous craftsman of a narrow cosmos, just a few thousand years extant, He rants and denounces and bitterly resents any questioning, offering us only two possible outcomes -- either perpetual thoughtless torment or endless thoughtless bliss. The choice is supposedly up to each of us...
....and yet, He never steps right out -- unambiguously booming from the sky -- to make the two doorways clear.
. No, in order to pick a path between two discrete and simplistically diametric conditions -- heaven vs. hell -- you must successfully choose one specific set of written incantations to recite, with utter and unquestioning faith, from among all of the other prescriptive incantations that are offered, out there. Choose the wrong one -- even with utter sincerity -- and you roast.
What a guy. Only there is another version.
-- A craftsman of mind-boggling subtlety, who formulated Maxwell’s Equations and all the other staggeringly beautiful innovations of math and geometrodynamics and quantum subtlety that translate into “let there be light!” Whose vast universe spans billions of years and may encompass a plenitude of living worlds.
. One who clearly left the workroom door unlocked and all His blueprints on the table, for bright, upstart apprentices to decipher, exercising their curiosity and impudent minds, the way the brightest and best young apprentices always have.
. One who clearly has intent that we should figure it all out.
. One who may even have in mind work for us to do.
That was a bit of an aside. But it all comes back to the basic issue that’s at stake.
We have to keep believing in our ability to do good.
To learn new things... to re-evaluate our dearest assumptions... and listen to things that other people have learned.
To improve ourselves, our children, and our world.