Thursday, August 11, 2016


The Age of Atheists, Peter Watson

Ostend, Volker Weidermann

I and Thou, Martin Buber

The Name of God is Mercy, Pope Francis

The Quest of the Historical Jesus, Albert Schweitzer

"What Binds Us," Jane Hirshfield

Music by Igor Stravinsky and Steve Reich

"In the day to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshiping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship."

--David Foster Wallace

I'm listening to Steve Reich's "Tehillim" on vinyl as I write, a recording I bought in 1981 at a record shop in Providence (!), a possession as valuable to me as my copies of Plato's Dialogues or Shakespeare's plays. "Tehillim" is of course the Hebrew word for Psalm; Reich chose the well-known lines from Psalm 19 that begin "The heavens declare the glory of G-d,/the sky tells of his handiwork," and the lovely lines from Psalm 34, "Who is the man that desires life, /and loves days to see good?/
Guard your tongue from evil, / and your lips from speaking deceit. / Turn from evil, and do good. / Seek peace and pursue it." The B-side covers Psalms 18 and 150. The music is incantatory, hypnotic, like the plainsong one hears during the recitation of the Hours in a monastery.  The voices intone each Hebrew syllable with equal stress, as though reaching through the words toward the divine: "Ha-sha-my-im, meh-sa-peh-peh-rim ka-vohd-Kail." Reich was among the remarkable collection of artists gathered by Manfred Eicher at ECM in the 70's and 80's--I own dozens of records from this era by musicians like Ralph Towner, Jan Garbarek, Gary Burton, and Pat Metheny. Eicher allowed Reich and the rest to experiment with long, loosely structured compositional forms, non-traditional arrangements, and unexpected concatenations of instruments. The sublime series of Keith Jarrett improvisational piano works is part of the ECM catalogue; these performances stir in me a sense of awe at the beauty of the (sonic) world. Like Reich's "Tehillim", like the sublime poetry of the Psalms themselves, they evoke a feeling that must be akin to worship.

 Don't be alarmed. This won't be a Christian apologetic--or an apology for any other religious persuasion. Like sex, religion is private, or should be. Public sex is pornographic; so are public ravings that purport to describe one's private conversations with the deity (de rigueur for any American aspiring to public office). We really do need to revive the idea of reticence, of a divide between our public and performative selves (high drama!) and our silent, solitary, authentic selves; but that's another topic, for another time.

The impetus for this post was some reading I've done this past week in Buber and Schweitzer, in Peter Watson and in the short historical essay Ostend by Volker Werdermann.  I often read in themes. This week's theme was cultural despair, informed in part, I admit, by the American presidential election. Werdermann's little book on Joseph Roth and Stefan Zweig in the resort city of Ostend in the middle 1930's is a deft and affecting lament for Europe's second collective suicide of the twentieth century. Roth, a more cynical and worldly figure than his romantic and somewhat naive friend Zweig, understood what would transpire with the Nazi seizure of power; Zweig came to see the future as well, and perhaps, in his sobriety, rather more clearly than Roth, though not before he'd convinced himself that Europe's humanistic traditions would prevail over fascism. By 1936 such a belief in "humanistic traditions" was farcical, suicidal, and Zweig decamped to Brazil (a story brilliantly told in Peter Nash's new novel).

After Ostend I ventured into the dense intellectual history of Peter Watson's The Age of Atheists. Watson is a breezy and readable intellectual historian--his encyclopedic The German Genius (2010) pays homage to a remarkable tradition of artistic and philosophical achievement, while at the same time lamenting the rapturous mass destruction of those very traditions--and of much else besides. 

 Watson's thesis isn't original, though he examines it with care: with the "death of God" proclaimed by Nietzsche, Western persons yearned to fill a spiritual void in their lives--without the promise of transcendence, without the rich symbolism of religion, without the moral guidance of Scripture, Western life devolved into violence and chaos, the chowder-headed philosophy of Being and Time, the facile narcissism of Sartre's existentialism, into nihilism, preening aestheticism, war and genocide, greed and consumerism, mad science and bad science, and then, of course, right back into the arms of wacko fundamentalists. Watson isn't put off by the emptiness of most of the failed sources of meaning he describes--on the contrary, the age of atheists is mostly depicted as level-headed, devoid of delusions, married to progress. In other words, as liberal, the secular city upon a hill.

Everybody worships--but what exactly? Watson aside, if you subtract God (or Truth, or Meaning--all metaphysics, all general nouns) then--be honest--there isn't much left to provide us with hope and comfort. History is a blood-bath; philosophy, which abandoned the project of meaning with Nietzsche, has devolved into technical arguments whose arcane vocabulary has closed the discipline to all but specialists; politics has surrendered the common good for dramas of self-aggrandizement and therefore accepted the "pragmatic" necessity of pandering to the basest instincts of an increasingly ill-informed electorate; and theology, particularly Catholic theology, persists in repeating ancient fairy tales and demanding "faith" in place of understanding. A sorry spectacle, and one whose discontents have not been eased by the alternative beliefs outlined by Watson.  I adore Joyce and Proust and Joseph Roth and Zweig, but their effect on my "soul," my inner life, is fleeting, narcotic, comforting, but no substitute for belief in...what? I love literature, but can I worship it?

I find the "new atheists"--unlike the intellectually astute "old atheists" like Bertrand Russell--to be a sorry lot. Dawkins, Hitchens, and Dennett mistake what can be said about believing in God for the actual experience of believing in God. Their mockery of the tall tales that fill the Bible and other religious books feels cheap, rather like laughing at the sentimental banalities of a greeting card or mocking someone who really enjoys Elizabeth Barrett Browning's "How Do I Love Thee"--as if a heartfelt wish for joy or an expression of love is diminished by words that can't live up to the feeling. As if the feeling doesn't come first.

The truth is simple: all deep feeling, every profound conviction, any belief that isn't merely a passing fancy, dammit, everything that matters lives in us in a place that language cannot penetrate, does not even belong. Who came up with the idea that language defines the limits of truth?

Martin Buber is among the theologians I still read. I cannot endure Catholic theology, though I have browsed the admirable Pope Francis's little book The Name of God Is Mercy (sorry Il Papa, I'm not seeing it), as modest and lovely a Q and A on faith as you will ever find--and as ecumenical a book as I have ever read, touching in its sincerity. However, Francis is unique. With rare exceptions, his parish priests and conservative bishops have never outgrown Augustine's self-loathing or Paul's horror of the body. Jewish and Protestant theologians are another matter. Especially German theologians, a point that Watson makes in The Age of Atheists. With great finesse and astonishing erudition--they all read Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin as well as all the modern languages--men like Buber, Hershel (a Pole), Schweitzer, Tillich, Niebuhr (American born, of German descent), Oscar Cullmann, Karl Barth (Swiss) and many others, revitalized theology as a legitimate intellectual pursuit.   

I and Thou was the first serious work of theology I ever read. Buber theologizes Kant's profound ethical idea of the categorical imperative (there are several versions, but they all stem from the same insight). The greatest moral imperative we have is to treat others as ends in themselves, never as means to an end, never as objects, never in a way that we couldn't imagine conceptualizing as a universal moral law, binding on everyone, always. Concise and intuitively appealing, central to any ethics, the entire point, one would hope, of Judaism and Christianity. The lonely, alienated "I" of Being and Nothingness become an I-Thou relationship in Buber's theology. Rather than focus exclusively on human perception, as most philosophy since Comte has done, Buber privileged relationships--to things, to the world, to other people, and, through other people, to God. Buber's theology appears to have been deeply influenced by Husserl, by the phenomenological insight that perception and experience are relational, and that consciousness is inherently creative. Human beings desire "to possess God," desire "a continuity in space and time" that comes with possession of God. Communal life and the desire for "salvation," that is, for deep relationships, constitute the core of Buber's I-Thou relationship. There's a gentleness and humanity in Buber that appeals to me, a sense I also get in reading Spinoza that I am witness to a profound intellect yearning for truth. I don't understand everything, or even much, but reading Buber is not unlike a walk in the woods: you may not be able to name all the trees and plants, but you feel refreshed by the exercise.

I won't attempt to summarize Schweitzer's classic Quest, or his life, which was extraordinary in every respect. Had he only written this volume of historical theology, or his magisterial book on the life and music of J.S. Bach, or done nothing but found a hospital in what is today Gabon (French Equatorial Africa), his life would have been remarkable, even saintly. When I think that Schweitzer shares the honor of a Nobel Peace Prize (1952) with the likes of Henry Kissinger and Barak Obama I have to laugh to keep from weeping. Schweitzer used his prize money to found a hospital for lepers.

The "historical Jesus" is a mode of dealing with one of the fundamental problems of Christianity, namely the fact that the founder and his contemporary disciples saw their faith as apocalyptic, that is, they believed time was coming to an end, and that the events prophesied in Daniel and Isiah were close at hand (Mark 13). Schweitzer took up the challenge of historicity through a brilliant critical survey of Protestant theology, and a reconceptualizing of Jesus's message. Specifically, Schweitzer focuses on the paradoxes, contradictions, and indecipherability of Jesus's words. And the greatest of these paradoxes, plain to anyone who reads the Gospel of Mark (the source of the other three) is the idea of predestination. In Mark, chapter 4, verses 10-12 Jesus explicitly says that his teaching in parables is done to keep the message of salvation closed to those who are not among the chosen. If the message weren't esoteric, "they might be converted and forgiven," clearly not a desirable outcome. Nor did the Parousia, the Second Coming of the Son of Man, occur as prophesied, so that the fundamental beliefs touted by Christians have at their core what is at least a paradox, if not an outright contradiction. A religion of ending, St. Paul had to reinvent the faith as a religion of waiting--this was a tall order, and if one reads Paul objectively, it is easy enough to see that he failed. Modern theology, Schweitzer observes, with its emphasis on what is universal in Christianity, distorts the historical facts and the nature of world-negating message of the founder. There is much to admire in Jesus, but there is much to be confounded by as well. Schweitzer as musicologist, physician, and humanitarian was committed to seeing clearly and to telling the truth as he saw it.

What should we make of these arcane arguments, these attempts by theologians to create a form of meaning that doesn't mock history or human reality? I am persuaded by Schweitzer's earnestness, his willingness to debunk a century and a half of theological preconceptions, but his Jesus is no more appealing to me as an object of worship than the "Lord" invoked by Rev. Falwell. In the end I return to Watson's thesis: we're trying to fill a void left by the death of God. Some fill it with art and some with a rereading of ancient religious texts; in either case the effort falls short, the crude hand print of wishful thinking is everywhere evident.


By this point I have moved on from Steve Reich and am listening to Stravinsky conducting his "Symphony of Psalms," composed in 1930 for Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The text of the first movement is from Psalm 38: Quoniam advena ego sum apud te et peregrinus sicut omnes patres mei,  "Like my fathers, I am a stranger to You, and a wanderer," or perhaps better--"You are a stranger to me, just as You were to all my fathers--and I am a seeker." Which pretty much sums up the case.

Why so coy, so hidden, so cruel, at least within the ethical terms human beings are permitted to understand? Why, contra the good Pope, is there so little justice and virtually no mercy? Couldn't it be, shouldn't it be, otherwise? Imagine an invisible and unknowable lover leaving opaque notes lying about a vast desert and then enjoining us, on no evidence whatsoever, to love her unconditionally. Absurd. Beyond even a "leap of faith," a catapult into the void.

So, if David Foster Wallace is correct, and I believe that he is, what do we choose to worship? Or, since it's none of my business what you do, what should I worship?

I have no idea. My prayers these days--what I call the words cast into the Great Void like bars of Bach's Goldberg's set adrift on NASA's probes for intelligent life--are full of thanks for family and friends, for mountains and the Gulf of Mexico, for great books and stirring music. As a kid I asked for stuff: "Lord, please can I have new ice skates?" Older, I merely wish to record my gratitude for this lucky chance, for a shot at being human (as the Buddhists put it).  As for worship, let's say I'm open to suggestions.

I'm going to give the redoubtable Jane Hirshfield the last word in this long post; Jane H., a modern mystic--it's "What Binds Us," and is from the early collection Of Gravity & Angels. Try to find a Hirshfield that isn't as deep as scripture:

There are names for what binds us:
strong forces, weak forces.
Look around, you can see them:
the skin that forms in a half-empty cup,
nails rusting into the places they join,
joints dovetailed on their own weight.
The way things stay so solidly
wherever they've been set down—
and gravity, scientists say, is weak.

And see how the flesh grows back
across a wound, with a great vehemence,
more strong
than the simple, untested surface before.
There's a name for it on horses,
when it comes back darker and raised: proud flesh,

as all flesh,
is proud of its wounds, wears them
as honors given out after battle,
small triumphs pinned to the chest—

And when two people have loved each other
see how it is like a
scar between their bodies,
stronger, darker, and proud;
how the black cord makes of them a single fabric
that nothing can tear or mend.

George Ovitt (8/11/2016)

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