Often while working by myself on fairly mindless tasks, I have silent conversations with invisible friends. This morning, it was an evangelical Christian, challenging me to describe my religious beliefs. I was shoveling out the cross drains on our mile-and-a-half-long driveway.
I started out strong, saying that my current doing without overt religious belief is really a spiritual exercise, just as one may fast or go without sex. I assured my imaginary double that I’d like nothing more than to become a believer. In fact, I find many forms of religious practice quite attractive, from the ritualism of the Eastern Orthodox to the enthusiasms of Pentecostals and the quietism of Quakers. But it seems to me that if we are truly to give ourselves over into the power of a divinity who is beyond our imagining, the very first thing we should get rid of is any notion that we know what is best for ourselves.
“But what about salvation?” asked my imaginary interlocutor. “Scripture says we must believe if we are to escape damnation.” I replied that “scripture” says many things, some of which contradict each other on their face. But if one message comes through loud and clear, it is that the worst sin of all is to worship false gods, followed closely by attempting to construct images of the divine and invoking divinity for self-serving purposes. Bibliolatry thus constitutes an offence of the highest order.
We are commanded to love divinity and to love our neighbor – the two commandments are apparently closely linked. Nowhere are we commanded to love ourselves. Therefore, to pursue a form of salvation that does not include every one of our neighbors – which ultimately must mean every sentient being in the universe – would be to damn oneself. As long as a single soul still burns, we have a moral obligation to share in its torment.
At some point, my paper tiger of a debating partner accused me of believing in the heresy of deus abscondus, tantamount to the Nietzschean Death of God. I ventured that this might not look like such a heresy if one happened to be Jewish, Armenian, Rwandan, etc. But be that as it may, I said, I think what we are faced with now is homo abscondus. Forget about God – the entire dimension of the sacred has become invisible to most modern humans. We have become like the walking dead, ghosts in the machines. Some quite serious thinkers now look forward to the day when every bit of individual memory can be transferred to computers. When that happens, they say, we will have no further need for physical bodies. The machines will set us free; we’ll become immortal. I say, to hell with that!
Well, naturally my evangelical friend agreed heartily on that point. But a little later I began to needle him about the Christian predilection for making a virtue out of unpleasant work. “The only real excuse for hard work,” I said, “Is to remind ourselves of how delicious ordinary water can taste!”
I can’t remember any of the other points I made this morning, but you can be sure they were all pretty devastating.