This I don’t believe

Recently, a couple of the blogs I read featured statements of personal belief. Rachel Barenblatt of Velveteen Rabbi wrote what she described as a personal credo, although with a few caveats:

I don’t want to risk misunderstanding, or to lose nuance in the attempt to speak too plainly about matters which don’t lend themselves to language. At the same time, I don’t want to let the perfect be the enemy of the good; just because I can’t be sure of expressing myself perfectly is no reason not to try. My final caveat is that I’m not sure it’s possible for a credo to be comprehensive — otherwise it would take lifetimes to write, let alone recite!

Then Tom Montag at The Middlewesterner, in a break with his unwritten rule against personal essays that aren’t related to the blog’s Middlewestern focus, published a somewhat darker statement, the greater part of which seems to consist of caveat.

I believe this as firmly as a righteous Christian believes in Christ, that some twenty-five billion years from now the universe will collapse back upon itself, will congeal and compact and become again the speck from which the Big Bang erupted, and everything that we know, everything that we have cherished, will be lost. That I have lived will mean nothing then. Nothing I have written will survive. Both the good I have done and the pain I have caused will have evaporated as surely as the wind blows away my spoken words, blows away the scent of the decaying world.

I was reminded of National Public Radio’s “This I Believe” feature – not that we are likely to hear views as challenging as Rachel’s or Tom’s on the airwaves any time soon.

Much as I enjoyed reading these statements of belief, however, I felt little inclination to follow their lead, and at first, I wasn’t quite sure why. Rachel’s “Credo” had been sparked by a post at not native fruit, where Karen Mattern penned what could only be termed an anti-creed screed. Karen talks about her strong impulse to escape what she considers the excessively credal focus of her native Catholicism. In my case, though, I can hardly claim to be reacting against my upbringing. My parents always encouraged us kids to think for ourselves, in an environment that was neither hostile toward religion nor favored one religion over another. We took turns reading and discussing the Bible and (eventually) other sacred texts at regular family religion meetings, and all views were welcome as long as we could argue persuasively for them. (I remember how much this used to bother my conservative Methodist grandmother. “Why don’t you take those kids to church and teach them what to think?” she once snapped at my mother.)

The upshot? One of my brothers had a conversion experience and joined a Christian church, while the other remains indifferent to the claims of organized religion. For my part, as readers of this blog may have sensed, despite a strong interest in religion, I have never been able to commit to a single one. To me, this is like going into a Baskin-Robbins and being told that, whichever of the 32 flavors you pick, forever after you can only order that flavor.* I’ve become something of an intellectual chameleon: I change colors to match whatever I am reading at the moment. “Via Negativa”? Perhaps it’s to preserve my own psychic health that I prefer to let my most strongly held convictions take a negative form.

Negative propositions have played a pivotal role in my thinking since at least the age of fifteen, when I read Masanobu Fukuoka’s lyrical book about natural farming, The One-Straw Revolution, with its central insight that humanity knows nothing. Armed with this conviction, the author says, he was led to pioneer a productive and ecologically sound method of farming which, in contrast to modern industrial agriculture, approaches each problem by asking, “How about not trying this? How about not trying that?” Following nature meant, above all, cultivating one’s mind to appreciate the way things tend to happen on their own, and making as few modifications to these natural processes as possible. As an enthusiastic vegetable gardener who had recently published an article in Organic Gardening magazine entitled “An Experimental Garden,” I was enormously surprised and impressed.

The translator’s footnotes led me to Daoism, in the form of D. C. Lau’s translation of the Tao Te Ching, and the opening verse changed the way I thought about metaphysical questions for good.

The way that can be spoken of
Is not the constant way;
The name that can be named
Is not the constant name.

Though I might now prefer a slightly different translation – one that treats Dao more as a verb than a noun – Lau’s translation still seems designed for maximum impact on the worldview of an essence-obsessed Westerner.

Shortly thereafter I discovered some of D.T. Suzuki’s writings on Zen, and began my acquaintance with the Buddhist theory of the self (or rather, no-self) – still the only psychological tradition I can claim any familiarity with. Seven or eight years later, a chance reference in another book about growing food (I think maybe one of Wendell Berry’s, but I can’t recall for sure) led me to Peter Kropotkin, and the great, sadly misunderstood and under-appreciated tradition of Western anarchism. Kropotkin’s views dovetailed with, and greatly expanded upon, political insights I’d gleaned from philosophical Daoism. Along the way I also grappled with such books as Stephen Jay Gould’s The Mismeasure of Man and Paul Feyerabend’s Against Method. Once I got beyond the shock of realizing that “the emperor has no clothes,” I started turning the questions back on myself, trying to get to the root of our shared assumptions about how the world works, or ought to work. Eventually, I even rejected anarchism, reasoning that as an anarchist my first duty was to free my mind from a subservient relationship to a set of received opinions.

I resisted making a systematic study of any of these influences, believing that insights imported from others are never truly earned. The point is not to be able to claim ownership of an idea, whatever that might mean, but to be able to appreciate its full impact. Plus, I enjoy playing around with ideas; I am far from sharing Buddhism’s disdain for the “monkey of the mind.” Given any new idea, I tend to immediately consider its antithesis, and then try to judge how large the apparent gulf between thesis and antithesis really is, and whether it might be bridged. That virtually reflexive impulse to counter with “How about not?” has proven to be enormously useful to me. I thought it might be fun to list a few of my favorite contrarian stating-points, to give my readers a better idea of where the heck I’m coming from.

Here’s the caveat. Just as the articles of faith in a regular, positivist credo are things one aspires to realize more fully in one’s day-to-day thoughts and actions, so are the non-articles in my anti-creed. The fact that I list them here doesn’t mean that I have fully absorbed their impact or worked out all their implications. They are non-articles in the sense that the form they happen to take here is completely arbitrary. In fact, merely allowing them to coalesce in this fashion may damage their utility for me, because, above all, I view these as starting points for reflection rather than objects of intellectual assent. In no particular order, then:

I don’t believe that “life” has “meaning” in the sense of some knowable purpose. To think otherwise is to reduce a multiplicity, which at best can be experienced as a gestalt, to a limited and tool-like shadow-life.

I don’t believe in the idea of progress, whether in personal, social or evolutionary history. In the long run, as my friend Tom points out, we are all a null set. Salvation occurs in the present or not at all (see next-to-last non-article, below).

I don’t believe that coercion, punishment or retribution can ever be anything but regrettable. Killing wild animals for meat or killing another human being in self-defense may be necessary, but imposing one’s will on another is never of any benefit to the other. It is a criminal’s empathy for his/her former victim, not punishment, that brings about remorse and (with luck) efforts at restitution. True justice works to restore harmony, not to perpetuate disharmony.

I don’t believe in hierarchies. While they may sometimes serve a limited, heuristic purpose, hierarchical structures, methodologies and ideologies are little more than extensions of ego, and work to hamper the freedom (political, intellectual, and spiritual) of those who use them as well as those whom they seek to define.

I don’t believe in ownership. The ultimately fruitless attempt to possess is nothing but an enlargement of ego, harming the would-be owner as well as the being, object, idea or portion of space over which ownership is asserted. (The concept of God is most useful as a way of conceptualizing that portion of experience which is fully sovereign and beyond ownership: to a faithful monotheist, virtually everything.)

I don’t believe in essence. “Being” is a falsely reified byproduct of an Indo-European grammatical construct, the copulative verb. This is not an argument for nihilism, because “is not” is simply a derivation of “is.” (The Buddhist concept of Emptiness is most useful as a way to remember the contingent and provisional nature of all things.)

I don’t believe in a unique and singular self. The quest for liberation becomes immeasurably simpler when one realizes that there is nothing to liberate (see also next-to-last non-article below). Whether or not we experience ourselves as unitary individuals is conditioned by culture: many traditional societies have the belief that a person is made up of multiple souls and spirits, for instance. For psychological health, probably only the experience of wholeness is necessary.

I don’t believe in the alienation of subject from object. While discriminatory reasoning is a powerful tool with many obvious applications, those who employ it should beware against its unlimited extension; they risk becoming the sorcerer’s apprentice. (By contrast, the “logic of participation” at the root of magical/animist views is vital to the creation and appreciation of art, music, love – everything that makes life worth living.)

I don’t believe in a mundane level of reality. Life may appear mundane much of the time, but that is because we are not fully awake to it – and/or because we are unwittingly conspiring to perpetuate collective delusions and multiply suffering, our own as well as others’, in the pursuit of ego-gratification. (The non-mundane may take the form of sacrality, comic absurdity, or anything in between.)

I don’t believe in proselytization. For persuasion to remain non-coercive, it must stop short of explicit or implicit threats aimed at the other’s spiritual well-being. Invitations to join a faith community should only ever be offered in a spirit of genuine friendship; otherwise, efforts to increase the numbers of the faithful amount to little more than empty power plays (and will lead to endless schisms).

I don’t believe in the pursuit of personal salvation, liberation or enlightenment. If you make your own advancement a priority, your ability to empathize is fatally compromised – and without empathy, there can be no true understanding. Besides, advancement – a version of “progress” – is an illusion: there is nowhere to advance to beyond the present moment. Liberation seems to be a natural human instinct, just like the instinct for food or sex, but as with these other desires, until we are willing to abandon it at any moment to serve others without a second thought, we remain imprisoned, mired in egotism.

I don’t believe in static creeds, ideologies, or other self-consistent systems of thought. A god that requires assent to propositions as a pre-condition for salvation is no God, but a tyrant. And even for the godless, I think, when the pursuit of intellectual consistency starts to feel compulsive, it’s time to stop. Abstractions are masters incapable of mercy. Repeat after Whitman: “Do I contradict myself? Very well then, I contradict myself. I embrace multitudes.”

O.K. that’s enough! I could probably split some of these up or think of one or two others, but these are the monkey bars on which my thoughts most often play.

*Although, in point of fact, I always do get the same flavor of ice cream wherever I go: mint chocolate chip.

9 Replies to “This I don’t believe”

  1. Fascinating post and well-written. I need to re-visit this when I’m not tired. (Although, I’m a nightowl, it’s still past my bedtime.)
    For now, a succinct comment: I share many of your philosophical beliefs and, not nearly as importantly, Mint Chocolate Chip is my BR top choice!

  2. Hey, thanks for visiting the archives.

    The FOTT and other links only appear on the sidebar in the homepage — maybe that’s why you were confused.

  3. What a great statement(s)! So many cogent remarks it’s impossible to have one coherent response. The Tao– oh yes! Poetry and paradox… lovely.

    And we should tell friend Tom about the macrocycles implicit in Hinduism (the yugas, four making up a kalpa, after which it all collapses and starts over), closest approximation any religion offers to the Big Bang concepts. It may also be the only recognition of cycles in organized religion, which often seems to believe in linear progress.

    Thanks for a most challenging post. I’ll be back to consider it in more detail.

  4. Glad you liked. Yes, the Hindu cosmology (and hence the Buddhist) was one of the very few among pre-modern belief systems to fairly approximate the vastness of time and space recognized by modern physics.

    I can’t remember whether Hinduism was mentioned in the original comment thread for this post, which was lost when I moved to WordPress.

  5. I really appreciate what you had to say about alienation of subject from object. As a person who has, feverishly at times, sought enlightenment this seems to describe a bad habit I rarely seem to shake.

    Thanks for the metal work out!

    1. Glad you found it so. I’m wondering what would happen if I tried writing such a manifesto again, without re-reading this one? Would they be at all alike?

      1. Mmm? That IS a good question.

        As someone who has avoided memorization in favour of functional understandings, I sometimes wonder if I sound like I am saying the same thing when I mean to be.

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