the faith hope

an ongoing exploration of a thankless subject

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Location: Adelaide, Australia

Founding secretary of the Urbane Society for Sceptical Romantics, a club I take very seriously indeed.

Friday, September 22, 2006

on secular smugness

where I'm heading - no mystery there

I'm still reading God: a biography, by Jack Miles, which is great pabulum. Throughout, I've been wondering about whether this Jesuit-trained scholar/author is a christian. Obviously he was at one time, but I liked to imagine he'd lapsed. His text didn't make it entirely clear though - he was treating god, or yahweh, or 'elohim as a literary creation, a character who varied and developed over time, and that didn't easily chime with belief, but he stopped short at the obvious next step for a non-believer, the idea that each bible writer refashioned this supernatural being, or amalgam of supernatural beings, according to his own designs. There still seemed the shadowy background idea that a deity was shaping the collection of texts, or at least that something coherent and developmental emerged from analysis of these texts, something literary perhaps, but not fictional. The term 'fictional' is avoided.

Miles seems to reveal himself in an endnote, while defending his use of the Revised Standard Version when quoting from Isaiah: 'Because Isaiah is a prophet heavily invoked in the new testament as prophesying Christ, I may be suspected, as a Christian, of favouring a translation made under Christian auspices.' It came as a bit of a shock - another one bites the dust.

So with this prejudice in my heart, I was interested in his remarks on the mystery and unpredictability of life as expressed in Proverbs:

In a sense, mankind now becomes the protagonist, and God the antagonist. The happier outcomes are assigned to human effort, and God is assigned ultimate, personal responsibility for those times when the opposition, human and circumstantial, proves insuperable. He is made, in a remarkable way, the personification of all that; and as such, he becomes, if not the explanation of it, then at least a name for it. Instead of saying, in other words, 'There is no figuring it out.' Proverbs says, 'There is no figuring him out.'
Secular, contemporary reformulations tend to make impersonal what Proverbs makes personal. Thus, for example, 'Into each life some rain must fall' or such uglier, more recent versions as 'Life's a bitch, and then you die' or 'Shit happens'. But these actually fall short as reformulations of Proverbs 16:4 because they are in no way confessions that life exceeds the speaker's understanding. On the contrary, they are smug in their confidence that all relevant evidence has been examined, and this is the bitter result. In order to avoid claiming omniscience, they would have to admit mystery in some way and thereby cease to be as terminally secular as they wish to be.

These were startling remarks, a real lapse from someone who'd been at such pains to hold aloof from the usual jibes believers and non-believers - myself obviously included - love to toss at each other. However, sophisticated and nuanced though Miles's language generally is, he falls here into the trap that believers fall into with monotonous regularity - that of projection of their own supernatural-saturated worldview onto the views of the other side.
It may or may not be the case that remarks such as 'shit happens', 'life's a bitch...', etc are evidence of smugness. Perhaps my own biases cause me to see less smugness in these remarks than in 'I'm not perfect, just forgiven'. However, the claim that these remarks 'fall short of' Proverbs 16:4 is most revealing in its missing of the point. Proverbs 16:4, to quote the NIV version, goes thus: 'The Lord works out everything for his own ends— even the wicked for a day of disaster.' That's to say, for the Lord, there's no mystery, there's nothing beyond his control. That's the nature of such supernatural entities, and believers are apparently comforted by the sense that at least someone out there knows it all and controls it all. It's an idea completely foreign to the secularist - that's the point. The term 'mystery', used by Miles, implies that there's a key, a solution. The secularist tends to think, instead, of insuperable complexity, a world over which we have little control, which stretches way beyond us in space and time, which is indifferent to us, and which will eventually snuff us out, for all our ingenuity and personal complexity. It has been said that 99% of all species that have existed on this planet are now extinct. Inevitably, we'll go the way of the dodo. This is hardly a cause for smugness.

However, the difference between believing that there's an 'it' to be figured out, and a 'him' is absolutely crucial. Miles almost trips himself up when he says that 'there is no figuring him out' is a reformulation of sorts of 'there is no figuring it out', then seeks to argue that 'shit happens' and other sayings are not in any way confessions of our lack of understanding. I'm not convinced. Certainly they attest to our lack of control, and they may even attest to the idea that we're actually more concerned about control than understanding (an evolutionary adaptation?). Secularists don't need to admit 'mystery' to avoid terminal secularity. I'm sure most of us would feel that terminal secularity is thrust upon us, as is mystery, which might be just a name for all the vast universe that's beyond us.


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