If it steals upon us of a sudden,
in what state shall we depart hence?
In this past century, a 100-year span that opened with the death of Nietzsche and closed with the mapping of the human genome, it has proved harder than ever to believe in God. As science and reason have tumbled through their stunning, acrobatic adolescence, they have cast faith out of the limelight, rendering it at best supplemental to the facts of existence, at worst a perversity. The rationalist mandate soars freely over the Earth, casting human ambition into the skies, injecting our desires into the microscopic limits of the living earth. We, as a species, seem increasingly confident of our dominion over this world and beyond.
Still, we are often told that religion is on the upswing in this nation--that churches are on the increase, that politics and faith are converging, that family values are being rediscovered in religious ethics. Tellingly, we have just seated an avowed born-again Christian president, whose most resplendent social policy thus far may be summarized by the recommendation that every good citizen "pray for this great nation."
Yet, those of us who will pray do so without conviction, even as those of us convinced of the power of reason still fear God. Indeed, most of us languish in an ambivalent middle, lost in the fog of simply being. Life, it seems, is a frustrating and ignorant mentor: It offers up too few answers and poses meaningless questions. In the face of its confusion, perhaps all we can do is lose ourselves in vanity. Certainly, that is what my brother did. He is a born-again Christian.
I don't know my brother very well. He is six years my senior, which means I revert to an infantile state whenever we are together. I grow needy and fragile and inarticulate; clamoring for his attention, stunted into obsequiousness. I make jokes that aren't funny and tell supposedly erudite stories that come out base and vulgar. And because he is my older brother, he just sits there and listens, waiting for me to fall on my face.
We did not grow up together (he was sent to school overseas when I was nine), and I have always felt his presence to be somewhat temporary and random, like spring clouds or advice from a stranger. He visited us only at Christmas, like Santa Claus, arriving from America (we were living in Kenya at the time) in a haze of vaguely adolescent, proto-punk ideology and radical, East Coast art-school fashion. He was curiously handsome, with Rasputin's eyes, high cheeks, and a sharp chin hovering above a slender, wiry torso. As a kid, I thought of myself as funny-looking and a little fat. When my brother arrived, it was as if the purity of the possible world walked through our front door. Like all younger brothers, I could not help but be in awe of him.
My family moved from Kenya to Massachusetts when I was 14. My brother was in college by then, majoring in art and overhauling his personality at least once a year. I saw him only for the brief cataclysms of the holidays. I remember he returned home one Christmas obsessed with Marx and high fashion, preaching the need for good clothes and proletarian confidence. Speaking from experience, he told me how decadent the punk rock look was and offered to take me shopping for sharp German shoes. "It is important to take pride in how you dress," he said, "even as a proletarian."
The following Christmas, wearing all black, he gave me a canon of decadent French literature--Rimbaud, Baudelaire, Lautreamont, Artaud--and told me to read it all, drink wine, and practice yoga. The next Christmas, he suggested I go vegetarian and do pushups, and he spent the vacation reading aloud to me from Thus Spoke Zarathustra.
Then, in the fall of my senior year of high school, my brother returned home to live with our family for the first time in a decade, and I went to pick him up at the train station. He had graduated college the previous spring, and had spent the summer in Valdez, Alaska at a fish cannery. In the car home, he stank of garlic and strange Indian spices, which he explained helped clean his bowels. His eyes were a bit sharper and his cheeks had sunken into his face like great canyons, his cheekbones towering over them like mountains. He sported a monk's beard and had few possessions other than a deck of tarot cards and a library of books on nutrition. He talked proudly of the liberating effects of enemas.
He spent that fall obsessed with various kinds of foods, starting with whole foods, moving on to living foods, and finally arriving at wheatgrass as an all-encompassing spiritual elixir. He joined the Ann Wigmore Foundation, a collective of terrifying, protein-deprived vegans collectively going mad under the guidance of health food diva Ann Wigmore, who was then being harassed by the FDA for claiming that wheatgrass could cure AIDS. The one time I accompanied my brother to the school, she came flamesoating out of an upstairs room and down the lovely, curved oaken staircase to greet me. Her wrinkled old face was smeared with beet extract and bee pollen, which she said reversed the effects of aging. I found her quite odd.
My brother said his diet afforded him the mental clarity necessary to navigate the miasmic mess of reality that so painfully confused him. He talked vaguely about opening chakras and channeling energies, and he complained ceaselessly about our parents' unenlightened dietary habits. He had grown bone thin, eating nothing but seaweed and raw vegetables, washed down with the wheatgrass that he cultivated in our basement. On Thanksgiving, he celebrated with a walnut, and it kept him high all day.
Then one day in February, 1987, he asked me to come into the attic with him, where he explained that he had been saved by Jesus Christ, whose voice he had heard in answer to his prayers for salvation. His eyes burned soft and bright with hope; then he closed them and told me how much he needed God. I had no reason to doubt him.
As far as I can tell, my father has never needed God. A handsome, elegant product of the Age of Reason, my father has, for as long as I can remember, gleefully embraced a meaningless existence, transmuting the basic, ontological simplicity of his being into a vein of optimism that runs through his life like a cool breeze through a hot day. When he dies, he believes he will cease to be, and the thought liberates him to live and love living.
From left to right, the books on the shelf in my father's study are John Maynard Keynes' General Theory of Economics; The Essential Works of Marxism; Machiavelli's The Prince; The Federalist Papers; Francis Bacon's The Temper of a Man; Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations; The Utilitarians: Bentham and Mill; Francis Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism; Hobbes' Leviathan; The Age of Reason Reader; and, of course, my namesake Jeremy Bentham's Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.
Subjective reason means everything to my father. There is no grand truth in his world, only the empirical aggregate of human knowledge and the wasteful speculations of metaphysics. If there is a purpose to the human condition--a big "if" in his mind--it is the pure pursuit of progress, which, like time, must move ever forward to help make the world a better and more humane place. The mere fact that dental care has improved since the time of Henry VIII, who had a notoriously foul set of wooden teeth, is proof enough that every day, in every way, life gets better and better.
For my father, science, mathematics, and economics are the engine under the hood of progress; literature and art the sometimes needless scenery out the window; and religion the sugar in the gas tank. Like many good Americans, he practices a moderate form of Bentham's "hedonistic utilitarianism," espousing the virtues of the greatest good for the maximum number of persons, railing against the fallacious and oppressive dogma of both organized religion and ideological politics. By his hedonistic calculus, life is a pretty good deal: We may enjoy our time on Earth, maximizing our pleasure and minimizing our pain, and approach death with dignity. Naturally, he believes strongly in doctor-assisted suicide, and gives annually to the Hemlock Society.
My brother went missing in 1990. I was living with our family in Jakarta, Indonesia at the time. We were having a breakfast of yogurt and sweet, sunset-colored papaya when we got a call from the Montana state police. "We've found what appear to be your son's belongings here, by the side of Interstate 80," the officer said.
My father was then working as a developmental economist, applying Keynesian theory to Indonesia's impoverished rural areas in an attempt to Americanize the nation's financial infrastructure. He liked to tell stories about individual farmers whose lives were improving as a result of his work. Some had managed to buy motorcycles; some had improved their houses; some had founded successful small businesses. All were maximizing their pleasure and minimizing their pain to the mantra of upward mobility.
At our last communication, my brother had been painfully mobilizing downward. He was squatting at my parent's house in rural Maine, where he listened to Christian radio and ate boiled beans and rice. He had lost his driver's license and was using a three-speed bicycle to get around. He told me he'd made six dollars mowing a neighbor's lawn, and had determined to get himself a big steak. It took him over an hour to bike the eight miles to the grocery and back, and somewhere on the return trip, the steak had fallen out of his bag. When he got home, he cursed God and the entirety of his futile life and told me he felt "like hanging it all up."
A year after the phone call, with my brother on the missing person's register, I visited my parents' house in Maine. Evidence of his presence suffused the house. The spines of books he had burned--the Bhagavad-Gita, Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, Dead Souls--still sat in the fireplace. He had burned all of his own paintings and covered other paintings in the house with sheets or simply removed them from the walls. On the refrigerator hung a single image of Christ and a psalm about sin and redemption.
My brother had been living in the most Lutheran room of our house--the white, unadorned room at the far end, which my parents used to call "Siberia" when we were children. "Send them off to Siberia," my father would call out when we got too loud, and we would run to the far end of the house and up into the big white room with the pitched ceiling and no decorations.
My brother had been sleeping on a small mattress on the flamesoor. The only other furnishing in the room was a red wooden chest, filled with scraps of paper with Bible verses copied onto them and a collection of pictures of African nomads he had cut out of magazines. My brother had always been obsessed with Kenyan nomadic tribes like the Samburu and the Masai, and he often told me of his longing to join them in wandering about, eating milk and blood and chewing strange African twigs that made their eyes bloodshot. He qualified the nomad's rough, empirical life as some sort of greater spiritual grace--a grace he longed to behold.
At the far end of the room hung an enormous piece of cardboard, cut from a washing-machine box, upon which my brother had written in large black marker:
"I have received the power of the holy spirit; power to lay hands on the sick and see them recover; power to cast out demons; power over all the power of the enemy."
I was 20 at the time; I would not see my brother again for another year. I felt dismissive and nihilistic about the situation (I even rewrote the first line of his epistle to read, "I have received the disease of allegory"). My hatred for Christians was quite acute then. I had no sympathy for those in the throes of a monkish delirium. The pursuit of salvation seemed vain and deceived, and, for the first time in my life, I felt superior to my brother and his dance of confusion.
Lost and Found
My brother resurfaced in Seattle in 1992 after wandering the country for almost three years. ("I was trying to live like a pastoral First-World Christian nomad," he explains.) He simply showed up on my front porch one day, having called our parents the previous month for my address. While my heart certainly raced as I took in his presence, I don't believe we hugged.
I was living with a man possessed of a quite amazing record collection. And my brother, perhaps because of his youth in Africa (or drugs or some divine mandate), has always been obsessed with polyrhythm. For him, one of the abiding frustrations of attending Pentecostal churches is their lousy rhythm sections. In fact, one Sunday, shortly after he had been saved by Christ, I watched him take the altar at his church and pray aloud to God that the members assembled there might, by his grace, learn to clap on the downbeat of songs, like in reggae. "I think that it would be much more in keeping with the spirit of the Lord if we could all learn to do that," he told the bafflamesed, all-white audience.
Happily, my housemate had some great dub-reggae records: Mikey Dread, Augustus Pablo, and even a prized disc called Drums of the Congo. My brother was thus, for the most part, very happy during his visit. I would go to work, and he would play records and dance about the living room. Occasionally, he walked the six-mile round trip to the Fremont food bank ("they have the best rolls," he explained). But the bulk of his time alone was spent dancing ecstatically to polyrhythms in my living room.
This is not to imply that it was an easy month. The evangelical are among the most trying of house guests. My brother tried, with varying degrees of fervor, to convert every one of my housemates. He performed his customary tricks of removing idols and icons from people's rooms. He hid the Slayer records. He left Bible tracts on people's beds and generally made a nuisance of himself. Most provocatively, he asked far too many questions about the nature of people's beliefs in God. When he got into a yelling match about the inescapable ubiquity of sin with my girlfriend, I chose to evict him. I told him he had to go, and he smiled. "Well, now I guess I'll just have to ram the Gospel down my own throat," he said.
Then he turned and walked out the door and down the street to wander the country for another two years, before eventually landing in Globe, Arizona, where he worked the graveyard shift at a Circle K before finally moving back in with my parents in Maine last December.
States of Being
My father retired a few years ago and settled permanently in Maine. "Any state that has lost population for more than one decade running is doing something right," he says. He lives at the top of a grand hill in a small town called Denmark, where he is on the planning board and fights against the growing profusion of cellular communication towers and dreams about stringing a piano wire just below the surface of the nearby lake in order to surgically separate water skiers from their water skis.
My father most closely approaches spiritual reverie in his contemplation of nature. For him, Maine is one vast cathedral. In winter, the air smells like sugar and the sky above is pale and gentle behind velvet clouds. Nature is not so big as to be overwhelming: The lakes are small and warm in the summer; the pine trees keep the lines of the ridge soft; and the forests are made for walking through. My father's property is small but topographically ambitious, and he has placed pew-like benches on various ledges and outcroppings in the forests around his house. It is exceptionally fine just to sit on those benches as the sun sets and watch the light paint the trees golden and bronze. My father walks twice a day, though his arthritis and fake hips beg for clemency. I would guess he sits on one or another of those benches and is silent and listens to the sounds of nature and imagines the day he will, quite simply, cease to be.
This past Christmas, my father gave me a copy of Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward O. Wilson's On Human Nature. (My brother gave me a Bible.) "I find him just so refreshing," Dad said as I opened the book. Wilson is an iconic figure of our age: a biologist who postulates that the social constructs of human nature are founded on purely biological conclusions. In Wilson's view, "No species, ours included, possesses a purpose beyond the imperatives created by its genetic history."
Wilson refers to the elaborate cultural outgrowth of our genetic imperatives as "hypertrophy," a term that describes how the mundane cell in the crown of a deer may elaborate itself to produce an antler. In Wilson's view, human nature may be viewed as the hypertrophy of fairly mundane genetic imperatives: The baroque stylings of war are simply elaborations on the genetic tendencies toward aggression; the baffling customs of love and marriage no more than extensions of reproductive directives. In short, Wilson says, the narcissistic complexity of our human state is merely a foil for the callous demands of our biology.
Wilson's clinical view of human nature is about as atheistic as it gets. He calls religious experience "obscurantism" and classifies the achievements of humankind just slightly below those of Earth's greatest civilization, the ants. We are grand cosmic accidents, Wilson supposes, whose time on Earth is, by any other than a genetic definition, utterly meaningless.
Yet Wilson is not inhumane: He recognizes the cataclysmic postulate that the 20th century has so firmly nailed in place. "If the brain is a machine of ten billion nerve cells," he says, "and the mind can somehow be explained as the summed activity of a finite number of chemical and electrical reactions, then boundaries limit the human prospect--we are biological, and our souls cannot fly free."
My father appreciates Wilson's reasoned humility and atheistic ambition. Like Wilson, he sees humanity suspended between truth and the great void of ignorance, but he believes progress will keep us moving forward. And if the pure light of total understanding is to forever elude us, he says, "at least we can find closer and closer approximations to the truth."
My brother has recently come to a different but oddly related view of human nature, one influenced deeply by the teachings of John Calvin. Arguably the most influential Protestant theologian in history, Calvin is perhaps best known as the architect of the theory of predestination. This watershed theory postulates that free will (that age-old fly in God's ointment) is really no more than a red herring. According to Calvin, God has predestined the souls that are to be saved, and no amount of doubt, anxiety, or confusion can unsave them. Conversely, said Calvin, no amount of supplication, ritual, or faith can save those who are not predestined to know God. Those who are saved go to heaven and the rest go to hell. In short, fate has utter dominion over a person's soul, from the infinity before conception to the eternity of the afterlife.
Calvin was deeply pessimistic about life on Earth. Indeed, he saw it as just this side of hell:
"It is evident to all who can see that the world is inundated with more than an ocean of Evils; that it is overrun with numerous destructive pests, that everything is fast verging on ruin, so that we must altogether despair of human affairs, or vigorously and even violently oppose such immense evils."
He classified the human condition as one of "total depravity," by which he meant utter and complete spiritual and moral debility. "What is more consistent with faith," he famously asked, "than to acknowledge ourselves naked of all virtue that we may be clothed by God; empty of all good that we may be filled by Him, slaves to sin that we may be liberated by Him; blind that we may be enlightened by Him; lame that we may be guided; weak that we may be supported, to divest ourselves of all ground of glorying that He alone may be eminently glorious?"
My brother finds great solace in the beliefs of Calvin. Like Calvin, he sees our condition as innately flawed and sinful, yet he believes the Bible can at least teach us to live a life of ethical rightness while we wait to be released. We may never truly know God, he reasons, but we may at least take refuge in knowing that He has a master plan.
The Free-Flying Soul
Wilson's reductive, nihilistic view of human nature and Calvin's dogmatic, ethically hopeless view of the human condition are, oddly enough, two sides of the same coin. One sees a world that yields to the probe of empirical reason; one sees a world inscrutable to the most dedicated spiritual inquest. My brother finds the former drearily depressing; my father finds the latter cold and bleak. And, to make matters worse, they are both right.
G. K. Chesterton, the great British atheist-turned-Christian, noted that the chief problem of the world is that it is "not rational, and not irrational, but almost rational." (Freud more acridly summed it up by saying, "God is guilty of a shoddy and uneven piece of work.") Like a fractal pattern, infinitely complex at every layer, the world is a nonsensical mess that seems to have a form. And, for all our supposed progress on the face of it, we are stuck in the same frustrating, chaotic limbo.
The plot of human understanding--be it scientific or spiritual--against time produces nothing more than a hyperbola that takes truth as its limit. And every question of metaphysical meaning sends us rocketing along its trajectory, growing incrementally closer to an illusory answer that will never come. Science is like walking up a staircase that just keeps going; faith is walking toward a light that keeps receding.
While out on a walk yesterday, a small yellow bird literally fell out of the sky in front of me. That has never happened to me before. It was still warm as I picked it up and gazed into its dead eyes.
Looking at a dead bird can conjure up the whole dichotomous world in the palm of your hand. The mind penetrates immediately the feathers, the eyes, the skin on the feet, breaking them into cells, guided by genes, all made up of lipids and molecules and atoms and quarks and leptons. The mind grasps onto and is dazzled by the sheer existential complexity of it all. The bird, the thing in itself, is no more than matter bound together by energy, ordered by accident, but happy to be here.
Yet, the soul senses a fantastical creation and relates it back to the trees, the air, the clouds, and the stars that envelop us. The spirit soars at the ineffable beauty of the design; grandly mysterious evidence of the divine. The bird is much more than matter and is no accident at all. It is the nature of God made flesh.
Thus, a simple dead bird lays bare the grandest of all qualities: incomprehensibility. It (the grand "it") is neither perfect nor imperfect. It is frustratingly in between, a specter of the vast meaning of the universe; its being raptured to the epistemological void of non-existence. It merely sits there, mutely reflecting our demands back at us, offering nothing.
To me, the surprise is not in knowing that God does not exist, that there is only this existential moment. My father taught me that truth as soon as I could talk. Nor is there surprise in knowing that God most certainly does exist. My brother has been insistent on this fact for a full decade, thumping his Bibles and waving his crosses and praying for me. I know God is here as surely as no one can prove he is not.
Rather, the surprise is in knowing that God exists in a godless world. This surprise leads me to a strangely humble place, where I must live in a contradiction. It is easy enough to know that life is but a dream; that Einstein, in seeking a physical order to the structure of the universe, was no less an idealist than St. Augustine, seeking a spiritual architecture for the incomprehensible world. But it's tougher to believe that whether we live on a God-given Earth suspended between heaven and hell or on a lump of accidental matter hurling through space makes no difference; that to disbelieve is as much an act of faith as to believe.
We are fated, most of us, to the middle road. Kierkegaard's leap of faith and total Nietzschean abandon may hover at the edges of perception, as seductive as suicide, but in the end, both extremes require a feat of excision; both require us to close doors and know that we may never again open them. As much as we may desire the nurturing warmth of belief and the passionate company of believers, the truth is that to live a life consistent with any philosophical system requires immense commitment. That few of us can make such a commitment is expected. And yet, is that really an ignoble thing?
End with Questions
My father will, I presume, die sooner than my brother. He has read numerous books on death, including Sherwin Nuland's terrifying clinical analysis, How We Die, a sustained ode to the scientific bleakness of the end of life that chronicles the physiological extinguishment of the body's life-sustaining systems. Given what my father knows of death, he hopes for nothing more than to die with a minimum of pain and all reasonable facilities intact. He is not concerned about what will happen afterward.
I have no idea how I might react. Of course, I will try to remember his admonitions and grieve only for myself. I will try to see it his way, to understand that there is no loss intrinsic to the dead, but only the loss that accrues on the living. Still, I will miss him greatly, for he is a great man, and that yearning will command me to see his soul alive somewhere, and thus banish the petty tragedy of his death.
And yet, I am troubled by the thought that a separate, significant tragedy will occur: the tragedy of an individual reality's tendency toward conquest. I know that my brother will, with the full council of God on his side, damn my father's soul to hell. He will mourn arrogantly, stealing away the shroud of confusion that just slightly comforts us in facing the unfathomable. Perhaps he will be right, and my father's soul will wail in regret for all eternity. Perhaps my brother somehow knows the answer to a question that is unanswerable.
But I cannot feel so hopeless. I cannot bring myself to see life as a chance to find answers more than to ask questions. My father's belief in the answers is no more comforting than my brother's holy system. And so in the end, I will be left once again in the middle, not daring to jump either way. This time, however, I will understand that it is not fear, or weakness of will, or even laziness that strands me there, but the pure hope of never knowing truly what I might believe.
Ultimately, belief--regardless of object--is fleeting. Inspiration deserts us and we are left with nothing but questions, which is as it should be. For regardless of what epistemology may rule one's mind, it inevitably comes to seem like an answer, and an answer is nothing but the death of a question. Philosophy, in all its forms, is a haunted pursuit, and like all fights against death, it is doomed to ultimate failure. All beliefs are fated to betray us at the moments we need them most, and it is at those moments that we must once again remember the hope given to us in the form of a question. And if that question may never be answered, so be it. Certainly, truth itself is a hieroglyph: It is there, but we will never quite know what it says.