The resident feline got the worst of a cat fight, is groggy on antibiotics and pain meds, and despite all the TLC, has somehow gotten out of the houseboat and gone into hiding under the raft, somewhere in the six inches or so between the top of the flotation logs and the bottom of the raft itself. I’m very much afraid she won’t come out at all.
I kayaked around the raft in the rain, flashlight in hand, calling for her. No response. Nothing to do but dry off and try to distract myself online, where I found that I’d been emailed an article on TEDGlobal by Steve Marsh in the current issue of Delta Airlines’ Sky_Magazine, with this lovely couple of paras on me:
TED’s sangfroid is ultimately a good thing. Case in point is my favorite talk of the week, given by Lesley Hazleton… A self-described “accidental theologist,” she examines the essential role doubt plays in any faith, making an example of the divine revelation of the Koran to the prophet Muhammad on a mountain outside of Mecca in 610. “ ‘Doubt,’ as Graham Greene once put it, ‘is the heart of the matter,’ ” she says. “Abolish all doubt, and what’s left is not faith, but absolute, heartless conviction.
Between sessions on Thursday, I buy Hazleton’s book, The First Muslim, and tell her that her talk reminded me of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard’s concept of despair. She uses the index in her book to find the passage that acknowledges the connection and signs my copy, ‘To Stephen—Knowing you’ll love a bio of Muhammad that bows in passing to Kierkegaard!’ Lesley Hazleton is cool.
Irony? Paradox? Life? All I know is that I just wish I could be cool about the missing feline…
Uncool lasted eight hours. Wounded cat finally emerged. Florence Nightingale here back on the job.
Further update, October 9:
Healing well in progress. Florence Nightingale retired.
The talk I gave at TEDGlobal twelve days ago just went live!
Here it is — on Muhammad, the relationship between faith and doubt, and the travesty of fundamentalism:
Anything you can do to forward/repost/facebook/tweet/email/tumble/reddit/generally-spread-the-word will be wonderful. Let’s stop being the far-too-silent majority!
Shortcut url is http://on.ted.com/Hazleton
[In case you missed it, my earlier TEDx talk on reading the Quran is here.]
“I can’t believe you don’t believe in anything!” someone wrote on this blog a while back, commenting on my agnosticism (actually, she used capital letters and lots of exclamation marks, but I’ll refrain). And I was a bit shocked by that. What kind of human being can I claim to be if I don’t believe in anything? A nihilist? A god-forsaken creature left to the whims and mercies of fate? A craven whimpering coward afraid to commit herself?
So in between keeping up with what’s happening in Egypt and Tunisia and Bahrain and Yemen and Jordan and Iraq and Iran and oh-my-god Libya, I’ve been haunted by what she said — and have realized that she placed the stress on the wrong word. It doesn’t belong on the word ‘anything,’ but on the word before it: ‘in.’
Of course there are things I believe. I just don’t generally feel the need to believe in them. I may well believe that such-and-such a thing is true, though in fact this is much the same thing as saying “I think that…” or the more amorphous “I feel that…” and I’m trying not to be amorphous here. And in fact there are some things I do believe in, prime among them the possibility of some seemingly impossible form of peace between Israel and Palestine.
If I look at Israel/Palestine rationally right now, I see no way to a peaceful resolution. So in the lack of empirical evidence, I have no choice but to fall back on belief – that is, on the conviction that peace is possible, despite all evidence to the contrary.
I’m not being over-idealistic here. The first step in any thinking about peace is to get rid of all those images of doves fluttering around all over the place and everyone falling on each others’ shoulders in universal brother/sisterhood. Peace is far more mundane than that. It’s the absence of war. It’s people not being killed. It’s the willingness to live and let live. And that will do just fine.
There’s no love lost between England and Germany, for instance, but they’re at peace after two utterly devastating wars in the first half of the 20th century. There’s less than no love lost between Egypt and Israel – in fact it’s safe to say that for the most part, they detest each other — but that peace treaty, signed by an Egyptian dictator and an Israeli former terrorist, has lasted three decades. It’s nobody’s ideal of peace, but however uneasily, it’s held, and will likely hold whatever the changes in Egypt – a frigid kind of peace, but peace nonetheless.
But even thinking in terms of pragmatic, undramatic, boring peace, which once seemed as impossible for England and Germany, and for Egypt and Israel, as for Israel and Palestine, I still can’t see it. Of course this may simply mean that I have a very limited imagination, and so can’t see the forest for the trees. But to think that something is impossible because I can’t see it is not only an absurd assumption, but also a dangerous one.
What we believe affects how we act. If we stop believing that Israel/Palestine peace is possible, or even desirable, as the Israeli government seems to have done, then that affects how we act: we really do make it impossible. That is, we create a self-fulfilling prophecy of unending conflict. We act in our own worst interests.
I’d rather be naïve than nihilistic. So in face of the despair that often overtakes me at the latest news from Gaza or from the West Bank, I have to fall back on belief in the possibility of peace, no matter how seemingly irrational. After all, if it was rational, it wouldn’t require belief.
One definition of despair is in the inability to imagine oneself into the future. It is, in a very real sense, a failure of the imagination. So perhaps this is what belief really is: an act of imagination. The astonishing human ability to imagine something into existence, and to act in accordance with that imagination.
That’s what we’ve seen these past few weeks in Tunisia and Egypt and Bahrain (and maybe even in Libya), and that’s what’s been so inspiring about it: belief transformed into possibility. Belief not as faith in the divine, but as faith in the human ability to act and to change the future. Belief, that is, in ourselves.
You’ll find none of the comfort of received opinion here. No claim to truth, let alone Truth (that capital T always makes me nervous). None of that astounding confidence (aka hubris) that cloaks ignorance and prejudice. The aim is to question, to explore, to keep my mind — and yours — open, raise some sparks, and see what happens.
I wrote that eight months ago by way of introducing myself in ‘Who is the AT?’ Perhaps you thought I didn’t really mean it. If so, you’ll likely hit the Escape button in about one minute from now, because most of us, myself included, hate it when people challenge what we take for granted. We have, each of us, established certain fundamental principles by which we live our lives or see the world (the word ‘fundamental’ used deliberately), and these are our ‘last-ditch’ positions – our sacred principles, and sometimes our sacred cows. They’re the base from which we sally forth to do battle in the ever-expanding world of ideas, even as we insist that it is not expanding, and that certain verities – truths – are universal or eternal.
I am talking about what we often call “the obvious.” The big O, if you like. Here and there, it has been making an appearance in comments posted on this blog, along with its close cousin, the big S – simplicity. “It’s obvious that…” “It’s really quite simple…” Such comments make me feel like I’m being preached at – always an excellent way to get me to stop listening – but my real problem with them is that they cling to simplistic certainties in a complex and uncertain world. I am an advocate of uncertainty, of doubt, of inquiry — a lover of paradox and of the ironies that seem to me inherent in human existence. Simplicity might be all very well as a life style, but as a mind style, I find it stifling.
The Scottish psychiatrist R. D. Laing, hero of the ‘anti-psychiatry’ or ‘existential psychiatry’ movement of the 1960s and 1970s, once said this about the obvious:
To state the obvious is to share with you what (in your view) my misconceptions might be. The obvious can be dangerous. The deluded man frequently finds his delusions so obvious that he can hardly credit the good faith of those who do not share them… The obvious is literally that which stands in one’s way.”
Or, he summed up,
“One man’s revolution is another man’s platitude.” *
I’m not sure if Laing meant it this way (you couldn’t always be sure of anything Laing said – I once interviewed him at his home near Hampstead Heath in London, and came away after a couple of hours none the wiser), but what I take from this is that the obvious is what prevents us from thinking. It stands like a brick wall between what we already think and what we might think if we allowed ourselves to inquire further. In other words, once we decide that something is obvious, we stop thinking about it. We accept it as a given: sometimes as a sacred given – “Torah from Sinai,” as they say in Hebrew – sometimes as a scientific one, sometimes simply as an unquestionable assertion. We take it for granted, and lose patience with those who don’t.
That, I think, is what Laing meant by the obvious being dangerous. While we see it as a matter of fact, it is in fact one of faith, which becomes clearer when you consider how deeply attached we are to it. Fact requires no emotional investment; faith does.
Though I lack it myself, I see great courage in faith. My image of faith is of a person walking out on a limb – a real limb of a real tree, reaching far out into the air — in full awareness that the limb might break and that they might fall and break one of their own limbs, but in the faith – trusting — that this will not happen.
This kind of faith I admire. It’s certainty that repels me. Religious certainty, atheist certainty, scientific certainty, political certainty, moral certainty: the absolute conviction that you are right and that “they” – fill in the blank for whichever “they” most concerns you right now – are wrong.
If we can let go of what increasingly seems to me the pernicious idea of the obvious – the idea that we are somehow in possession of “the” truth, that “we” are the enlightened ones while “they” are living in delusion and darkness – perhaps then we might begin to be able to move toward something that could honorably be called knowledge.
Just please, don’t ask me to walk out on the same limb with you. We live in a huge forest of trees, and I’m more interested in the forest itself than in any particular tree, let alone any particular limb. Besides, I discovered as a child that I was no good at climbing trees. Either I’d get halfway up and get stuck, afraid to go higher and equally afraid to climb back down, or I’d fall. And yes, I have the scars to show for it.
* The Laing quotes are from a speech reprinted in The Dialectics of Liberation, ed. David Cooper, which also includes speeches given at the same event in 1967 by Gregory Bateson, Paul Goodman, Stokely Carmichael, and Herbert Marcuse. The book is out of print.
THE lies in novels are not gratuitous – they fill in the insufficiencies of life. Thus, when life seems full and absolute, and men, out of an all-consuming faith, are resigned to their destinies, novels perform no service at all. Religious cultures produce poetry and theater, not novels.
Fiction is an art of societies in which faith is undergoing some sort of crisis, in which it’s necessary to believe in something, in which the unitarian, trusting and absolute vision has been supplanted by a shattered one and an uncertainty about the world we inhabit and the afterworld.
I’m not at all sure about that idea of novels providing a “service,” but this is nevertheless an excellent explanation of why totalitarian societies clamp down not only on civil rights and freedom of expression, but on that most essential and potentially most subversive of individual rights — freedom of imagination.
Now it’s time to catch up with Vargas Llosa. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter sounds like farcical fun, but this accidental theologist really has to start with The Storyteller, in which a saintly, disfigured student presents himself as the official storyteller for a rainforest tribe and the repository of its collective memory.
Long live stories!
This “great belief in technology” is not secular but closely linked with a great belief in American awesomeness…
The certainty of American awesomeness that led to the war in Iraq or to the current destruction of the Gulf of Mexico, has been rooted in one, politically powerful branch of American Christianity. And what has feed much of this overrepresented group’s tireless (and often comical) resistance to the hard facts of, say, Darwinism, has been the belief that American greatness cannot be separated from divine providence, from supernatural agency.
When Charles soars, I often feel like I’m in a tiny Piper Cub straining to get off the ground, but I love that he gets back to the real meaning of awesome — not just neat or cool, but full of awe. Awe-inspiring. that is, as well as potentially awful/awe-full. And he’s right: that sense of awe is essentially religious. That is, it’s faith-based.
Our conviction that technology has the answers — in this case, to cap the burst oil well under the Gulf — is now revealed as the article of faith it has always been. One major impulse behind religious faith is to create a sense of order in the universe, and through order, control. We are no longer hapless, meaningless, pawns of existence. Faith might seem to be about humility, but more often, it’s the opposite. Through faith, in whatever god, we aggrandize ourselves. We assure ourselves of our meaningfulness, our purpose (as in that terrifyingly mechanistic idea of “the purpose-driven life”). Faith puts us in control, gives us the illusion that we possess the key to it all.
Of course if we really thought technology invincible, we wouldn’t need faith in it. So to suppress that awareness, we fetishize technology — we make it into a fetish, worshipped for its magical powers. We take applied science and turn it into an article of faith. We think it all-powerful, invincible. Until it isn’t.
You read this, obviously, courtesy of technology. But remember when the screen crashes and you feel utterly vulnerable. TDS — technology deprivation syndrome — kicks in. You feel bereft, helpless, cut off from the omniscience and the omnipotence of the Web. You’ve been dropped into a void. Your god has failed. Examine that feeling closer and I suspect it’s close to that of an addict suddenly cut off from his or her drug — and that the flood of relief when “service is restored” is very like the first hit of a restored supply of meth or heroin. All memory of vulnerability vanishes. Wheeeee…. we’re flying again. Until the next crash.
We can hardly say our faith in oil companies has been shattered (though it would be nice, if absurdly naive, to think that their faith in themselves has). Presumably the BP engineers who insisted on riskier, less expensive blowout-prevention procedures did so in full faith that they would work. Well, make that partial faith. They were playing the odds, and they knew it. Always a dangerous thing to do when gods are concerned, especially when it’s you that’s trying to play God.
Did they never hear of the Golem, or see a Frankenstein movie? Never hear the line “the monster lives”? Now here we are, stuck with a real-life monster movie. Simultaneously sickened and fascinated, terrified and thrilled, we watch it with horror — and a sense of terrible awe.