Posted by: cctracker | January 8, 2013

Myth Buster or Monster?

white-dragonA monster disguised as a philosopher attacked the nation in today’s New York Times. I battled it all day while putting away the Christmas decorations. With the days of Christmas waning, I guess the beast saw an opportunity to strike. But it forgot that Sunday was the Epiphany and that Christmas had some fighting spirit left. That was my inspiration for taking it on. Actually, I was grateful for the chance to grapple with it.

You can read what it had to say here in a piece called “The Myth of Universal Love.”

Before I launched an attack, I circled warily, taking careful measure of its strengths and my own limitations. Take a look for yourselves, but here is my effort to capture the beast speaking on its own terms:

“We’re barraged this time of year by Christmas entreaties to extend “Good Will” to all. Our religious and political mythologies support the message. Because every human being is endowed with fundamental dignity and inestimable value, they say,  we have the obligation to extend our ethical care beyond our small circle of family and friends to include everyone. 

“But it is time for us as a species to face the truth that this message is a deeply engrained, irrational and ultimately harmful assumption of Western Liberalism. Our highest values and ideals don’t rest on universal truths “beyond” us somewhere. They come from our own emotions, mostly from the Limbic system if you want to get specific.

“The appeal of the ideal of universal love–which usually makes us feel guilty for how badly we fail it by the way– is a product of our biological evolution. And the plain, biological fact of the matter is that our neural capacities for empathy and care can only stretch so far before they’re overwhelmed. We’d exhaust our very capacity for empathy if we tried to stir it up every time we saw a need. And if we really tried to live by the idea that a stranger in greater need was more deserving of our care and concern than those closest to us, we’d never be able to buy nice shoes for our own children or give preferential treatment to our own mothers. There would always be someone with a greater need who was more deserving.

“Instead of wallowing in guilt and failure, let’s celebrate the generosity and loyalty we feel for members of our own tribe. Not only are many of our own practical needs met in return for the love and devotion we show them,  but taking care of our own is really the best way for us to learn true  generosity and gratitude. Only in the small circles of family and friends can we appreciate the selfless gifts of others. Committing “sins” of loyalty  that sometimes collide with universal principles of justice and equality is actually a better path to happiness than heeding the call of the Buddha or Gandhi for universal compassion.The sooner we accept that  all people are not equally entitled to our moral duties, the better off we’ll be. 

“After all none other than Cicero recommended that we confer most of our kindness on those with whom we are most closely associated. And it was Catholic novelist Graham Greene who said: ‘One can’t love humanity; one can only love people’.”

So, there it sat, leering at me on newsprint with a self-satisfied smirk after saying its piece. Where and how to strike first?

I was on the defensive for a while. I’m a big fan of the explanatory power of science, particularly evolution and neurobiology these days, and the monster had made some valid points. I had to admit that my neural net was often stressed by grief for a world of strangers I felt powerless to help. I certainly did give preferential treatment to my mother over the needs of the poor. And, intellectually speaking,  it wasn’t easy to reconcile that with the ideals of my Christian faith.

Still, the longer I paced around, packing up ornaments and lights, dragging the tree to the curb and getting all the boxes back down to the cellar, the angrier and more repulsed I became. But as evening came on and the stars came out on a clear, winter night, I regained my composure and saw that I needed to attack with words and ideas springing from reflection rather than fear and rage.

I ran at it first with the Lance of Common Sense. The beast had a terrible blind spot and I struck at will over and over again.  It was blind to the interior lives of ordinary human beings. The beast claimed that human beings shouldn’t expect to be able to hold love and grief together without suffering disabling cognitive dissonance and that, therefore, they shouldn’t try. This stupidity was probably the fault of its binary brain, since any real, organic, analog being who has reflected on the human experience of love at any depth knows that every moment of love is colored by the grief of inevitable loss. They always go together. In fact, they can’t be separated. I killed the monster on this point eventually, but back to the battle.

Since it was posing as a philosopher, I thought I’d have a tougher time getting through on this protected flank, but I drew blood and began slicing off limbs as soon as I slashed at it with the Sword of Elementary Logic. The beast wasn’t claiming that strangers weren’t human. It wasn’t  denying that each and every one of them had lives, families and friends as precious and worthy to them as his own beastly life, kith and kin were to him. Of course, he wasn’t affirming this truth either. It just didn’t matter to him. And he advised the rest of us to take a similar approach for our own neurological stability, aka happiness. In fact, philosophically speaking, he didn’t acknowledge any truths at all beyond his own biologically conditioned existence. “Truths,” you may remember from his manifesto, are simply relative expressions of our biological feelings. When I asked him on what grounds he would demand of other monsters that they not rape and pillage his household and torture him for their amusement, he had no answer but did roar and breathe fire in my direction. I sliced off his snout and moved to his left flank wondering where I might find the heart of the beast to put it out of its misery.

But of course, it didn’t have one. The monster was, as I suspected all along, a machine. I didn’t have to kill it, really, because it had never been truly alive. But that didn’t mean it couldn’t spread its message into living beings who might mistake its teachings for wisdom to live by, so I did have to finish it off.

Would spiritual weapons do the trick? The ultimate spiritual weapon, of course, was love itself. This had been the real target , after all, of its Epiphany attack. So, while it lay wingless and legless before me, singeing its own eyebrows with every fiery breath,  I tried to talk with it about love. I explained, as gently as I could under the circumstances, that love–even the love it had acknowledged it felt for its own family and friends– required belief, a kind of faith, in two truths:

First , that one’s own interior life was real, unique and beyond our capacity for comprehending or quantifying. However limited that interior life might be in biological or emotional terms, when the light of that interior life blossomed into self-awareness to the degree that freedom became possible, the possibility of true love, the free gift of one’s self to another, was also born.

And that, I continued, wondering if the beast could follow language that was ultimately metaphorical more than logical,  brought us to the second truth:

Faith that the “other” was really present, too, and could receive a gift of self and respond with a free gift of  his or her own. The monster just stared blankly back at me, uncomprehending. That’s when the real horror of what it was preaching registered in my soul. As far as it was concerned, when you are really honest about it, human beings are better understood as “thinking and feeling machines” programmed to reproduce themselves. They operate best when they respect the manageable scale of their neural nets and create self-gratifying loops of “relationships” that sustain them until they cease to function.

Which is what happened to the beast itself just a moment after I tried to explain all of this. I would say when it expired I was left alone with my thoughts, but the chilling fact is that I’d been alone all along. I’d really been fighting myself.

I guess this is where my parable about battling a monster comes to an end and the true confession begins.

There were a number of years when my faith in love was, if not lost, certainly at risk of being so. I was reading my way through evolutionary biology, physics and neuroscience and trying to understand how a lifelong faith in the transcendent value of “being” could be maintained in the face of the powerful explanatory power of “nothingness.” It would take a long time to explain what I mean by that if this journey isn’t personal for  you. But a very brief way of explaining is to say that as I became acquainted with more and more sophisticated mechanical explanations for experiences like affection and longing that I had always labeled “spiritual,” I began to take seriously for the first time that all might be simple mechanism. “I ” might not be here in any meaningful way and neither might any “other.” The universe might be, in the end, relationally speaking at least, dead. All of which is to say, I was in danger of losing my faith in God.

Practically this meant I was moody at home and given to fits of silence at meal time with my family. It also made for some very strange days as a high school religion teacher.

I’m grateful that the darkest part of that period in my life didn’t last too long. I may try to tell a part of the story of how I emerged from it in a future post. There was no single moment of revelation, but there were key experiences that brought new insights. Most of them involved contemplative gazing at people and experiences that had been with me all along.

I don’t carry my faith today as something I own. I believe in God, but many days I can’t say in abstract terms what it really means to make such an affirmation. But concretely, in terms of flesh and blood, in terms of a “Christmas Theology” I know it means that every human being has inestimable value and must never be considered as object, someone whose worth is conditioned by their usefulness to me. I know that this faith is at the core of our convictions in the Judeo-Christian West from Moses to the Constitution. This faith animates the spirit of the United Nations Declaration on Human Rights, the latest grand attempt to codify it.

Several times in my life I’ve had the opportunity to spend weeks at a time among very poor  people. My heart still breaks at what I came to know about them. I return to their names and faces many times. One family high up in the hills of La Paz served me Coca Cola. It had cost Sixto, the father, nearly a week’s wage. He had seven children and four of them had died of diarrhea. The cup he served me with had been washed in the same water that may have been responsible for killing his children. My “neurological caring and ethical mechanisms” were certainly stressed by the experience. But there is more joy and gratitude by far within me for  having known them than there is sadness or regret.

I read the news of the day and on purpose try to extend my heart–my neurological sphere of care, concern and responsibility–to the Congo. These are hopeless days in that country. The ocean of pain and suffering they have endured seems to have redeemed nothing. And yet, in ways that are difficult for me to articulate, I could not love my wife and family as hopelessly as I do if I chose to close myself off to the people of this nation. I prayed for them everyday of the Christmas holidays. I could not have opened or given a gift with real joy if I hadn’t.

One of the “knights” in my castle read the same piece that triggered this entry. He knew I was battling with it. He responded to the piece with a question that cut so succinctly to the heart of the problem: “This guy just doesn’t seem to have a clue about what  ‘awareness’ is, does he?” We do not make the world, or ourselves. Our challenge, our call, is to respond to reality, especially to one another, with deep awareness. Which is to say with love. That is the message of Christmas.

Steven Asma, the author of the piece in today’s Times, is a stranger to me.  But as a fellow human being, I genuinely wish him, his family and his friends well. As a philosopher concerned with fundamental questions of meaning and value, I respect his chosen vocation and am grateful to have access to his work. And I believe that by exercising a modicum of responsibility in my communal life–paying taxes, obeying laws that protect public safety–I am serving him in a small but meaningful way. Steven Asma is certainly no monster himself.

But he is a man with a monstrous and profoundly deceptive idea, one that threatens the very heart of who we are individually and communally. It seeks to undermine our hard-won and fragile recognition as a species that truth transcends culture and biology. It attacks and seeks to devour our faith that the spirit of universal love is our highest calling and our best hope. That is why we  must fight back with words and ideas every time this monster rears its horrifying and seductive head to speak.

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