This past week has been one of the most difficult in my life. It started with a fever that lasted four days. And when that fever finally left, what should emerge in its wake but a horribly gnawing gastritis that, at this point, has responded only when I went to the hospital and received intravenous medication. Since I’ve been out of the hospital for a couple of days, you might get the idea that the nightmare is still worthy of Rod Serling. And only God knows whether this episode will ultimately merit a ten minute Night Gallery clip, an entire half hour Twilight Zone show, or a full-length movie on the Chiller channel.
In short, whoever you are, I’d take your life right now over mine.
Or would I? The fact of the matter is that, on any given day, despite all the outward signs of health that abound in nature and human society, there exist innumerable instances of suffering. Suffering in hospitals. Suffering on battlefields – or in places where the results of those battles are reported. And even suffering in shopping malls, baseball games, office buildings, and all the other places where ill people spend their days trying to live normal lives despite gnawing pains and/or even more gnawing prognoses.
In my case, my illness is too recent for me to have even picked up a prognosis. But it has lasted long enough and is sufficiently out of the norm for me that I have at least grown fearful at times about my future. And at those instances, I’ve often wondered how interesting it would if I perceived my illness from the standpoint of traditional theology.
Imagine yourself as a Fundamentalist Christian or Orthodox Jew coping with a seemingly serious and yet still undiagnosed illness. Would your religion not represent the greatest possible comfort? The devout traditionalist could well begin his or her day with prayer – petitional prayer – directed to a miracle working God who listens to our pleas and heals many a sick and dying patient. Prayers for healing may give way to expressions of faith – faith in God’s love, His mercy, His wisdom. The devout traditionalist might, after all, remember that “everything happens for a reason,” and perhaps one’s entire illness has been intended by the Good Lord to teach one a lesson about life (say, that a person shouldn’t work too hard). Once that lesson is effectively taught, perhaps the Big Man will decide that the illness need not continue, and once it is cured, we can emerge stronger, as well as wiser, from the experience. In fact, even if the Lord should decide otherwise and take us from the Earth, surely we will be going to an even better place, and our loved ones left behind will be blessed by their virtue with beautiful, eternal lives of their own.
I imagine myself embracing that philosophy. How much happier would I be right now? How much more at peace?
Contrast that attitude with my own, more Spinozistic philosophy. Spinoza, ironically, thought he had crafted a perspective that was just as uplifting if not more so than the traditional approach. Maybe he was for the 17th century man, but that was a long time ago, and the psychological cure he offered seems no longer to hit the spot.
Spinoza, in his role of self-help guru as well as theologian, thankfully did away with the concept of “original sin” and the notion that our illnesses may well reflect our being intentionally punished for something we did wrong. He stopped well short of offering us the joys of petitional prayer – I say “joys” because hope is a pleasure, as even he recognized – or the kind of blessed personal immortality that anthropologists consider to be the raison d’etre of any traditional theology. But he did offer an alternative elixir: namely, that we can live with inner peace through our understanding that all happens inevitably just as it must happen, reflecting the unfolding of God’s infinite essence, of which we human beings fully partake. In other words, there is no reason to suffer once we recognize that we are merely living out our own precious parts in the dramatic existence of the one and only God, the one and only Absolute Being, whose limitless, eternal nature underlies and embodies all that has existed, does exist or will exist.
Does that perspective give me sustenance in a time like this? Remember, this is an era when most of us aren’t saddled by disgust over “original sin” or tormented with an overarching sense of existential guilt. Most of us, in fact, simply go through our lives by performing one mundane task after another with the occasional break taken to enjoy some hedonistic activity – the watching of TV, the playing of a sport, the tasting of food. For us, comfort during times of constant pain and uncertain futures requires more than a mere sense that our suffering is “inevitable” or “natural” and isn’t caused by our “sins.” At least it does for me. I can’t tell you the number of times over this last God-forsaken week when I have reflected that while Spinozism has been wonderful for me during times of happiness, its payouts during my present ordeal have been modest at best. Ultimately, you see, my Spinozism leaves me with the view that what really matters is this life (not some distant heaven) and while my future in this world is likely not as bleak as my present, I can't guarantee myself that it won’t be bleaker still. Indeed, there exists no cosmic Santa Claus – no eternal “Father” – who is consciously looking after my soul and inclined to reward me for all the good that I have done and hope to do to heal His planet. What there does exist is Nature -- restless, dynamic, often unpredictable Nature -- which acts supraconsciously in ways that have seemingly arbitrarily saved many a man’s life and destroyed many others. Cold comfort, if you ask me.
So, I’ve wondered, if Spinozism seems to offer so much less emotional sustenance during times of crisis than the ‘ol time religion, why do I still embrace it? Why do I, like so many others in the modern world, reject the belief in an omniscient, omnibenevolent, omnipotent deity who could be such a Rock during our most troubling times? Simply put, there are more important things in the world than our creature comforts. Ultimately, what matters more is our self respect. And I would lose all of my own if I turned over my mind to a set of beliefs that seemed to be unreasonable simply because they might provide some invaluable emotional support.
“It is better to be an unhappy Socrates than a happy pig,” John Stuart Mill once said. Well, I’m no Socrates, but as I finish this post with the 50th or 60th wave of stomach pain since I started it, I’m clearly no happy pig either. I’ve often wondered if Mill speaks for most of us. Would we really opt for wisdom over happiness? Doesn’t that elevate our rational side too much, given that we are, at bottom, mere animals?
Maybe so. But once you’ve fallen in love with Lady Philosophy, once you’ve fallen in love with Lady Science, the muse of the ol’ time religion just doesn’t seem to look so damned good anymore. Some of us skeptics simply give up the idea of God altogether, whereas others, like me, embrace the concept – albeit in a redefined way. But wherever we fall on the continuum of “belief,” we are nowhere to be found in the continuum of faith, at least if that term is meant to refer to a faith that God will consciously intercede to save us from our torments. God didn’t intercede in Auschwitz or in
It isn’t the happiest philosophy to have. But, for my money, it remains the sanest.