Mockery is easy, particularly when presented ideas are deemed so clearly farcical. Examples of religious absurdity are so abundant, from declarations of the end of the world to seeing Jesus on a piece of toast, that poking fun and snorting with laughter has become a past-time akin to baseball for some. Unfortunately for the practice of mockery, it offers little help for any form of engagement to result in an expanded understanding. Perhaps such isn’t the goal though, and forgetting the silliness of their own childhood beliefs, the simplistic humor of mockery serves as a protestation of distance, each joke a declaration that “I am not like him.” When recognition eventually dawns that the other person, separated through mockery, has been struggling with issues intrinsic to all humanity, the gulf then that exists makes any helpful dialogue that much less possible.

Recently having watched the movie “Fury,” a scene plays out when one soldier asks another why the Germans haven’t given up as they are so clearly beaten. The other soldier looks at the questioner and asks: “Would you?” Whether it’s nationalistic pride or ideological allegiance, there’s a level of safety being sought in both, an identification with something bigger than one’s self. In issues of meaning and purpose, this identification can take on a great deal of weight, scrambling to hold onto it even as the mental fingernails scrape and break over the gravel of reality.

The Divine has a lot to answer for, being called on as the source for everything from a winning play in a sports game to bringing about a healthy end to surgery. From the truly extravagant to the utterly banal, the Divine of nearly any religious tradition seems to constantly and consistently be pointed to as the progenitor of anything good or welcome. Much can be said about the opposite being absent, that is the negative. Rare is the person who praises their Divinity for the death, destruction and heartache of everyday living. More so, the negative is absent even when the positive assumes the existence of such. I was in a small group once where a person wanted to pray that they would receive, via the prosperity gospel, a large life insurance settlement. When I pointed out that this required the death of a supposed loved one, I was quickly told to be quiet. This can be said of every claimed miracle of someone surviving a catastrophic event, their survival by Divinity infers that all those who died horribly were at minimum not chosen to live by that very loving Divinity or, more consistently, that they were in fact chosen to die horribly. Little wonder then that such thoughts rarely get voiced. Pointing out the self-serving egotism of such thinking simply goes without saying, but it still needs to be said.

Such self-serving ideas are not without historical roots, it would seem to be the underlying purpose afforded by the metaphysical allusions of religious ideology. Ignorance of natural events, from storms to death, served as impetus to determine some form of understanding, leading to the foundational elements of primitive Divinity. The result provides both consistency, but more importantly a sense of meaning, of purpose. If an event x occurs that is unclear or unhelpful, Divinity is called in to provide a sense of meaning or purpose via the instrumentality of the believer through some ritual. The result is an internalization of control-after-the-fact, of placing the event via human action upon an altar of Divine origin. Those rituals have changed over the years, some more than others depending on the religious tradition, with western Christianity reflecting a general lackadaisical attitude of mere projected thought as prayer being enough. On the other hand, perhaps the lack of overt and complicated rituals is indicative of western arrogance and self-empowerment. We don’t need the public bloody slaughtering of a bull, a silent wisp of a thought provides the equivalent. In any case, the Divine is called upon as the ultimate post-hoc logical fallacy, the consequence being the loss of any real human meaning.

 

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Wait, how does that happen? Notice the locus of meaning and purpose. Certainly there’s a sense of empowerment by the believer, but it’s a passive one, an apron-strings approach to living. Bad thing happens, meaning is placed on the Divine and life moves on despite there being no real understanding. Let’s face it, the Divine provides no explanation, merely a place-filling box that itself is hollow. Ignorance rears its ugly head in the face of adversity and is side-stepped until a story can be made to explain it. Think back on stories of Divinity, there’s a sequence of events. At first the naming of the Divine occurs, with some emotionally-laden cliche about mysterious plans. Only later, time dependent on the need and imaginative powers of the individual, is there any substance provided and always of some ego-saving form. Why did the bad thing happen? “I don’t know but God’s ways are mysterious.” Same question later asked and such turns into “God caused it to happen so I’d learn x lesson or find y door had opened.” Such thinking, by removing human intent and active engagement, results in a loss of connection with the real suffering of the world.

Now then, we don’t want to leave out the positive. We can see from the negative that there’s a disengagement, a general lack of removal from life that occurs when any meaning associated with suffering is placed on the Divine. When the same practice is done concerning the positive, the full hyperbolic destruction of humanity is complete, with nothing of what we do coming to have any meaning. Those years in school, the dedication to practice and sacrifices made to learn medicine and surgery, the personal level of intention and power of the human drive to succeed? All wither before the Divine hegemony of the good. The years of sweat and tears, the pain from training, the dedication to a team resulting in a beautiful cohesiveness of people working together to complete a goal? All of that is cast aside to be replaced by the Divine act. That sports players and doctors are lauded even by believers simply indicates the true shallowness of the idea. What it doesn’t remove is how utterly devastating such thinking is to human meaning and progress.

The existence of a Divine source for human action does not provide meaning, it places it in a realm outside of human reach. The Divine will relegates all human purpose and meaning to the scrap-heap of broken hopes and dreams. Our suffering and heartache become not sources for poetry and perseverance, our achievements and the humane quality of humanity become not sources for sonnets and hope-filled pride, all are but testaments to a Divine source of which we are but flotsam in the sea of changing materiality. The constancy of the Divine takes away any revelation of joy and meaning to be found in the day-to-day living of human existence. So yes it is easy to mock when silliness is ascribed to a person’s personal Divinity. The reality, however, is far more potent and deserves more than rueful sighs. Such a believer desperately wants to find meaning, but in so doing has lost any real source for it. That’s not silly or worth mocking, it’s completely tragic.

 

© David Teachout

11 comments

  1. I think you make some valid points, but also are a bit to dichotomous in your conclusion and not broad enough in your critique. For example, you hold human effort without assistance can be have meaning but the divine working through humans cannot have meaning. If the divine gives it meaning, wouldn’t it have more meaning to people? As they are then doing God’s work and their “true calling?” Given practical experience I don’t think such a dichotomy really can be posited.

    Where I’d say you are not broad enough is that you don’t challenge the Occidental anthropology. “Those years in school, the dedication to practice and sacrifices made to learn medicine and surgery, the personal level of intention and power of the human drive”… would all be meaningless without an ecology that can support your biological function, community, teachers, and the trust of others to let you cut them up. “No mans an Island” and all that.

    My point is if the believer is wrong to say “I get everything from God,” it doesn’t equate to “I earned everything I have.” It’s basically saying you don’t get credit if you have any support… the world just doesn’t work that way. And many people who think it does religious or not are among the embarrassments to the species.

    In fact a very secular problem humanity has right now is that it has over taxed the biosphere and polluted the atmosphere… something no one owns or could claim as their doing. Our wealth disparities come from the fact CEO’s claim they own the wealth and earned it… when no Bill Gates didn’t discover silicone, electricity, metallurgy, and all the skills that made the final product. No one alive today can claim that no one gave them anything if they know 2+0=4 (thank you India!).

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    1. I think you missed the point a bit. I’m not saying divine causation makes meaning impossible, certainly meaning can be applied to any event. It’s a projection of human conscious appraisal. What placing the locus of meaning upon the divine does is remove it from the human. When meaning is no longer derived from human projection and replaced with the divine, then nothing we do has meaning in itself by virtue of our humanity. It only has meaning if it aligns with the divine will.

      This is similar to morality. If all that is good is derived from deity rather than deity being subject to morality, then human beings cannot be good, they can only align their actions with a good as determined by the deity wholly separate from them. The result is a loss of any real determination of morality since such is by divine whim not by transcendent principle.

      When you describe in the Occidental anthropology is a horizontally derived meaning, or in other words a metaphysical similarity. I actually don’t find it defensible to declare any man an island, but meaning and purpose within humanity is not lost by interconnection because the locus is still the same, i.e. the human person as individual/social creature. The difference with the divine locus is the removal of man and the replacement with a vertical system. In such a system man is not needed for meaning whereas in the horizontal system the deity is not needed.

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      1. I guess it comes down to how you view the world. Even as a theist I struggle with the idea humans have meaning just because they are human. That doesn’t match the data sets empiricism or faith give me.

        However, to make the full claim “no meaning” I think kind of establishes that meaning is something that abstractly exist.

        Meaning is given to random things by creatures or God’s. So if all the intelligent life forms die… nothing can have meaning. If God gives it meaning then the meaning is retained outside ourselves.

        So it’ either things mean something to “Us” (singular and plural) or they don’t… Sounds like a meaning giving God must exist it’s just which one.

        BTW I’m not arguing for arguments sake, I think there’s something to all this but the paradigm is to individualistic/ modern.
        I’m just stupid seeking not so stupid.

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      2. You’re hardly sounding stupid and I appreciate the discussion. Truly. This is something I struggled with in my years as a Christian believer.

        First, I think you’re accurate in noting that meaning is only derived from conscious creatures and we’re all to disappear then meaning would go with. There is some strong difficulty here in equating at any level human consciousness with divine as the two are fundamentally different in metaphysical substance and ontology.

        Second, that last point deserves a caveat. “God” has no inherent definition, it’s completely at the mercy of any derivation from the person using it. Thus it’s perfectly acceptable to me even as an atheist for “God” to be used as substitute for the form of “transcendent principle” or as a conceptual term for “holistic reality.” The horizontal and vertical systems I noted are contingent upon metaphysical type. The vertical only applies to a God who is of a fundamentally different form than nature itself, hence the common differentiation for supernatural.

        Third, to address meaning’s retention. Meaning and purpose can be changed or removed as they are contingent upon conscious appraisal but complete removal is only possible in the vertical system. God in the vertical does not require man for meaning/purpose to exist. Man in the horizontal can only ever change meaning, not forever remove it as to do so would require the destruction of all sentient life.

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      3. Well, Schrodingers cat is either dead or not but he just doesn’t know yet.

        I think in the horizontal only way of thinking, like Kesely says in Cookoos nest you find stories that are true even if they never happened.

        It seems there is some level of greater meaning out there it’s Just hard to find

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      4. Much depends on what is meant by “true” in that statement. Myths, stories that never happened, can certainly contain truths in the sense of wisdom, as people can take almost anything they want from them. I’ve heard the parable of the three blind men and an elephant used for multiple purposes, have even used it myself, and yet it is reasonable to assume it is only just that, a parable or myth. That’s the lovely thing about the horizontal system, we as meaning-generating creatures can project through story the purposes that make sense to us and they can evolve as our understanding of our lives does.

        Which goes into your “greater meaning” comment. Quite often, and perhaps this is what you’re referring to, the phrase is associated with a transcendent or overarching purpose/meaning. Keeping this within the current topic, such can happen both in the vertical and the horizontal. The difference is whether man as human being is still necessary. I can speak of values and the principles that give them structure so that multitudes of behavior can be generated within that system, without ever leaving the horizontal plain of existence. There is simply no need for anything else. “Greater” here is a matter of perspective, no less meaningful because of it. The person who struggles to feed their family in a slum is possessed of no lesser meaning than the person pursuing greater civil rights for the disenfranchised. There is beauty in both because we choose it to be so.

        Within the vertical of a supernatural deity, our choices only have transcendent meaning/purpose when they are in line with said deity. As all good and true meaning is derived from it, so then our human capacity is but a frail and insignificant, ultimately meaningless, attempt at reaching the “greater meaning” of the divine. Humanity is no longer needed in that system, in fact could be construed as a detriment (as the doctrine of sin entails).

        There are struggles to be had in both systems. The horizontal simply doesn’t require that we constantly seek a “higher” purpose to our child’s drawings or the every-day struggles of us all. The higher purpose is always there, for we are the ones who generate it. I do not love because a deity, in some unknown and unknowable way, demonstrates it, I love because I will it so. I do not express hope or avoid wrong actions because of future gain or punishment in an afterlife, I do so because the entirety of potential meaning is already here within the me that is interconnected humanity/nature.

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      5. Hm, seems we mostly agree. I wouldn’t say a horizontal only schema lacks meaning. That was the point of the Cookoo’s Nest book, very 1960’s.

        What I still fail to capture is how the vertical system strips it from humans, even if in that I see my vertical relationship with my dog and my dog’s actions seem to give my day meaning as the higher being. Sin is a tricky subject, culturally its use is so off base to classical religious use that to me a classical humanist it’s almost a dead term.

        I don’t think I have much to give on resolving the pickle today though, shall have to think at what your meaning and such. Admittedly, my bias is Calvinist so I am extremely vertical in many respects and my view towards human choice is very different from most peoples to the point it’s conflicting diction of terms saying the same thing.

        Thank you for the nice convo

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      6. My studies and professional practice in psychology focus on linguistics and cognitive structures, so when you mention tricky terms and their usage, I’m right there with you. I’m less interested in getting people to see things my way than I am in encouraging the questioning of often unquestioned ideas. Skepticism never harmed anyone, though it at times makes life a little uncomfortable.

        Thank you for the quite pleasant chat. Always available to lob ideas back and forth in the future.

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  2. Perhaps an accessible analogy is to imagine a parent exercising this level of control over their child. The child would, essentially become a puppet of the parent. Autonomy, preference, intention–all of these would lose meaning.

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    1. Exactly. I bring this up through that analogy all the time. If a human parent were to engage in actions exemplified by “god,”they’d be rightly brought up on criminal charges, but since it’s “god” then it’s ok. Destroys the notion that we get our morality from deity.

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