Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Swerving Towards and Away

So I've been reading one of my "finish these before purchasing more" books from the FTBPM book drawer, Stephen Greenblatt's The Swerve.

It's about an ancient Roman poet, Lucretius, and his masterwork, On The Nature of Things. It's very fascinating, incredibly so, but the author's tone--well, it's rubbing me the wrong way.

He's an atheist, and like many atheists, he hurts my feelings.

Not in a deliberate way, or a taunting schoolyard bully kind of thing, but in his (apparent) relief that there is no God and therefore nothing to dread after death, this tone of moral superiority comes out. It's probably the same tone he hears in believers when they speak of being "saved". And I don't blame him a bit. I loathe that whole bumper sticker "In Case Of Rapture This Vehicle Will Be Suddenly Unoccupied" crap blend of pride and vainglory masquerading as faith or devotion. It's so gross, and shallow, and ultimately demeaning to the Jesus Christ these people are loudly proclaiming to revere. It makes me feel really, really unchristian and punchy. And stabby. And then all prideful because I am not that way at all! Oh, no I am not! See? I am wonderful and loving and humble and so much better than you Jesus loves you but He loves me more nyah nyah nyah!

It really does bring out my ugly side.

But anyway, I'm not to far in yet and the story he's telling is fascinating, but he seems, as I said, a bit "Well, I've seen the light in that there's nothing after we die, maybe you will too, someday", and frankly, it's every bit as irritating as anything Mars Hill Church has come up with about gay marriage or what have you. Any time someone goes This Far and No Further in their beliefs, no matter what they are, I start to itch, because watching people deny uncomfortable thoughts is like a rash. And that makes me think about all the thoughts I don't examine because I am, to use the theological term, fucking terrified of going that far. Of what I would find if I did. I get all twitchy and tense and anxious, and tend to distract myself online or watching The Creeping Terror for the uppity-umpth time instead.

So I'm alternating reading The Swerve with Acedia and Me by Kathleen Norris, and it's the perfect blend. Her book is about the "demon" of acedia, or "lack of care", and is unabashedly Christian in its viewpoint, but it's the opposite of rash inducing because it's hard and clearly thought through, and tries to frame humility as the basis, underneath it all, of all security within God.

So I occasionally get a little miffed at her too, all "Have you been following the recent shannanigans of the Church, lady? The Magdalene laundries? The sexual abuse? The attempted takeover of health care? These people are a menace!" And they are. But that's not God's fault, really, is it? That's our fault.

One conclusion I've come to recently is that once humans get involved, things get complicated. We  can't help ourselves, it's our nature, the one (if you are framing it using Genesis) that we selected for ourselves. But the thing is, no matter how often or profoundly or completely humans get it wrong, that doesn't make God wrong. Even if every single religion ever concieved in the mind of man is completely off track and fucked up and wrong, God still isn't wrong.

And we're allowed to get it wrong. Over and over for years, decades, centuries, forever. We can live and die enthralled to incorrect ideas, religious, atheist, or otherwise. We're allowed to screw up after fifteen or fifty years of trying to get it right, to convert to a new viewpoint in college or on our deathbeds or sitting in a sports bar. And if someone comes up with something really twisted and vicious and hurtful, we're allowed to say so, to wave our arms and petition our government and rant on the internet even if we keep getting it wrong.  We're allowed to change our minds even when it's really, really, REALLY embarrassing and all our freinds would stare in disbelief and change the subject and hope you get over this soon, that you aren't going to show up at their door in a white shirt and tie and invite them to join a study group and refuse to leave.

So that's what irritates me about this particular atheist stance, the idea that a world/life view has some kind of peak or stopping point, and there's no reason to go any further. And no, not all nonbelievers are like this, I'm sure you're not. I'm sure you are kind and polite and understanding and never snidely refer to believers as having "an invisible freind in the sky" on the internet, even when they are doing something deeply enraging in Congress. And if you are a believer I'm sure you're not the kind who get all show-pious and post "I'll pray for you" on someone's blog when you know damn good and well that is really insulting to them.

This was quite a wandering post, and if I had any sense I'd save it and rework it. But I don't and I'm going to throw it up there because frankly it's pretty reflective of my thought process.  It's not meant to be insulting or any kind of instruction guide, just a section of the endless blathering essay that is my brain at times.

No matter what you think, don't stop here. There's always more to go.


  1. Let me just point out one thing right here and now, even though it's not exactly on-topic. If you are a fan of something, anything, and you want to let people know because you're excited about it, maybe you even wouldn't mind talking to a complete stranger about it for a few minutes, then fine. Good for you, and more power to you if you want to sport the bumper sticker or t-shirt or any other form of signage. Just keep in mind that all it really tells people is that you're a fan of that thing. Religion, sports, books, atheism; it doesn't matter what you're advertising. I guess my point is that no matter what your signage says about you, it doesn't make it true. No matter how clever your shirt is, it doesn't make you smart. No matter how many fish are on your car, it doesn't make you a good person. So please, to all those that use their signage as a soap box, we're considering the source.

  2. I love this post and find that I have something to say for every paragraph, but I'll contain myself :) Keep em comin!

  3. "So that's what irritates me about this particular atheist stance, the idea that a world/life view has some kind of peak or stopping point".

    Um...I'm not quite sure what you mean here.


    I'm not a believer in the supernatural, but, there are always new life experiences, new scientific discoveries to read up on, new kernels of philosophy to reflect on, and digest, new historical facts to dig up, new art to appreciate, etc, etc.

    I don't see how anything stops, even one would wish it to.
    The world keeps turning, and even at rest, at a cellular level, I'm quite busy.

  4. Well, yes, exactly. You're not stopping. As you say, there's always more--art, philosophy, cellular jitterbugging.

    What annoys me are people (not you) who have a revelation about something or other--God, the universe, everything--and decide that's what's revealed is It. That's It. We, as a species, tribe, citizenry, whatever, don't need to know anything past that point.

    This ain't so, and anyone who hasn't been terrified or lazy-fied out of using their brains knows it. Sometimes what comes after that revelation is terrifying or heartbreaking, but that isn't the end either.

    F'rinstance, when I found out Abraham Lincoln didn't believe in the equality of the races, not the way we're hoping to achieve it now, anyway, I was shattered. I LOVED Abraham Lincoln. He freed the slaves and saved our union! That's what I learned in second grade and that's what is true, damn it all! But's more complicated. Anything involving humans is.

    So that's what I mean. No matter what your central viewpoint on the world, in any sense, whether spiritual, humanistic, material, etc., it's the beginning, not the end.

  5. Oh, THAT. *Laughs*

    Well, I've got a Gomez Addams sense of humor, so I always LIKED finding out the dark side of history.

    Confirmed my gut hunch that authority was lying. :)

    And being stubborn, and relentless, and digging deep into into things that would burn the scaredy pants-es is what LED me to atheism. ;)

  6. "...once humans get involved, things get complicated".

    I agree whole heartedly. All of recorded history is filled with us making things more complicated, step by step. Government, technology, philosophy, nothing has been untouched.

    'What can we learn and how can we use it' may not be at the very center of our being, but it's not too far off. And it drives us, we can't help ourselves, we just want to make things better right? So we build and destroy and reason and before you know it, it takes a solid week to train your average HS grad to take a freaking pizza order :P

  7. To be fair, at least three days of that is dealing with the "complicated" customers...

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  9. I didn't mean to imply that anyone is at fault, just that it's a complicated process, even though most people would think pizza order training couldn't possibly be anything more than "here's paper, pen and a phone, now get to it."

    And yes, I agree. Most of the training time is trying to ingrain in someone how to deal with situations that happen once a day or less...