Tuesday, December 22, 2009


Nice essay today by Ross Douthat on pantheism, apropos of its salience in the movies:

The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.

Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.

The "we" here is a bit tendentious, but certainly many people have these strong longings for something beyond the world we can see and touch: for ultimate answers, for an escape from death, for moral laws backed by divine anger. For nonbelievers, the existence of the "god-shaped hole" in the souls of many humans is one of the greatest puzzles. It seems a cruel trick for the universe to equip us with longings for what does not exist.

I would observe, though, that if life among hunter-gatherers is often short, it is not necessarily more brutish or nasty than any other sort of human life. Nor does belief in God do anything to lengthen it; the medieval world was every bit as nasty and brutish as the Mesolithic, and life might even have been shorter. And that is how I also feel about our spiritual situation. For me, religion doesn't really explain anything about the place we find ourselves in. It simply changes the questions. The fact of my existence on this world at this time, born with certain strong inclinations, surrounded by the others beings I have fallen in with, remains an absolute mystery to me no matter how I think about it. The "answers" offered by the religions I know seem to me either evasive or unhelpful. I don't expect any "answers" from science, either, not about the really hard questions.

What I feel is that I can only respond as the person I am to the world I see around me. I was born with curiosity and wonder, in a time when human knowledge is vast and ever-expanding, in a place where I am free to follow my mind wherever it will go. I also have a love of life as I see it. I love to dig my fingers into rich dirt, to watch the trees bud every spring, to see babies born, to watch children grow, to know people in all their madness and complexity. So I marvel at the universe and live the life I have, among the people I love. For me, that is faith.


Unknown said...

Upon reading Douthat's essay, two things strike me. First, most religions--especially the Middle Eastern monotheisms that he no doubt had in mind as he wrote this--offer little escape from "cruel rhythms." Christian, Jewish, and Islamic scriptures and traditions have suffering and death all over them--as well as much else, of course. The combination is there in part because they are responding to human needs, and in part because they respond to life as it is.

Second, the claim of each of these three religions is not that it satisfies human needs or questings, but that it is the truth. Under their own terms, if any one of these religions is not true--and by extension, if all of them are not true--then they provide no answers to Douthat's questions. (Incidentally, I'm not trying to privilege any other religions; it's simply these are the only major ones I know much about.)

In other words, as you are saying, just because humans have questions does not mean that that there are answers for them.

For myself, I follow Woody Allen in this matter: I believe in distraction. Distractions may be profound, they may involve deep love or hard thinking, they may be worthy of attention and love in themselves, they may indeed be other people (who are themselves, of course, finding their own distractions). I'm not saying that one loves what one loves in order to find a distraction, or that we do not have obligations to many, possibly most, of our distractions. But in a universe in which there are no true answers to Douthat's questions, that is what we're left with.

John said...

I remember when I first started thinking seriously about these things, in high school, imagining myself running in the air like a cartoon character, with the idea that if I kept moving fast enough I would not fall into the abyss.

Thomas said...

Sorry to post so late a response to this, but I had a few thoughts.

First, I think Douthat is being a hammer and finding everything to be a nail. The "pantheism" he thinks the movie espouses is not really the core idea. You can tell this because the humans have no discernible god. As cultural criticism, then, this is more about imperialism and the rapacious tendencies of capitalism.

Yes, in the movie, the Navi superstitions are "true," but that's more for the purpose of making the potential destruction of their holy site all the more horrible.

Obviously, on earth, no single tree's destruction is a great tragedy. The hunting of a single whale is not an ecological catastrophe. Cameron is using pantheism to heighten his metaphor, not to argue for pantheism. (He's also making "pantheism" true on Pandora because he can have nature defend itself in a coordinated fashion, turning the tables. Given Cameron's general over-the-top style, he's the kind of guy who doesn't want Bambi's mom to get away, he wants Bambi's mom to pick up a rifle and shoot back.)