Tuesday, November 06, 2007

God part 1 of 3: Living with myths

Myths are not untruths, but truths that extend beyond the rational mind. - Dr. Alan Sponberg from his Intro to Buddhism Course.
The God I grew up with was a God that you would ask for things from, or appeal to when things didn't go your way or call upon to tell others that they are wrong. People around me spoke of praying to God for health, emotional strength, and money; they openly asked God why 'bad things happened to good people'; and they used God as an ally in their cases against the evils of everything from homosexuality to lousy parking. I knew people for whom 'good person' and 'church-goer' were synonymous and who could not (would not) believe it when a church-goer was accused or convicted of some crime or wrong-doing.

So it may not be surprising that at age twelve, when exposed to my first natural science textbooks, that I openly disavowed any belief in God. Since then I have traveled a long way, through atheism (weak and strong), agnosticism, secular humanism, trying to become Christian followed by nihilism, and then Buddhism (whatever that means). Through Buddhist practice I have simply tried to live more freely and in the present moment, to be open to ideas and people, to understand my weaknesses and cultivate virtues.

Two questions come up for me sometimes: 1) do I believe in Buddhist ideas like nirvana and karma? and 2) where does all that put me with God?

The answers are rather complicated, but put simply the answers are something like "sure, whatever (agnostic)" and "what-do-ya-mean by 'God'? (atheist)." Following Kant, and (I think) the Buddha as well, I think that certain things are just too big to fit within our puny intellects. Questions like, "is the universe finite or infinite" or "is there a (Judeo-Christian) God or isn't there" are just silly because they ask our finite, limited minds to judge something that is not with those bounds or limits. The Buddha was famously silent when people asked him such questions and Kant called those who claimed to have an answer pretentious.

However, for neither was this the end of the story. For neither of them denied the possible reality of such things. In the Buddha's case, karma - a moral sense of cause and effect - was simply taken for granted. And for Kant too, the fact that there is a moral law is something that we as humans simply cannot deny. As for nirvana - the total cessation of suffering* - the Buddha certainly taught it and claimed to have achieved it. Yet the Buddha also taught that one should treat his teachings as a goldsmith treats gold, by testing it in many ways to determine its authenticity. So I take it to be within his teachings that I don't necessarily buy into nirvana; not that I deny it, but only that I'm still testing it out and until I know from my own eyes whether it is authentic I will remain agnostic-open. Yet, as Allen W. Wood notes, "Kant also holds that it is rational to pursue an end only insofar as you believe the end possible of attainment through the actions you take toward it." (Kant, p.180) In that case I must admit that I believe in nirvana, or at least something quite close (I say that because my belief arises from experiences - periods of time spent free from all suffering - and the reasoning that such periods could be extended indefinitely). The belief therefore is one that I think a skeptic such as Hume could assent to - it is not an unquestioning faith but a trust in experiences that could be replicated.

Kant it seems was exposed to much the same God that I was. Allen W. Wood, writing in a very Kantian vein states:
"Religious communities have usually been founded on a supposed divine revelation, [a scripture] accepted as authoritative... ruled by a class of priestly tyrants, who have done more to enslave than to liberate the mind and spirit. The idea of serving God that such communities have had has often been corrupt and superstitious, consisting of a set of morally indifferent or even degrading constraints on conduct (the performance of rituals, meaningless restrictions on what people eat or when they are permitted to work, regular performances of fetishistic conjurations of divine presence or formalized practices of slavish praise and contemptible begging directed at the divine being -- conceived, accordingly, as a vain tyrant who is disposed to favor unjustly those cringing subjects who most flatter him and abase themselves before him)." (pp. 183-4)
Wow. He goes on about war and each side's use of God as 'on our side' and about religious claims to "exclusive access to divine will" and imposing beliefs on others.

It would be nice to think that that was just the Christianity (and Judaism and Islam) of the 1700s and that it is totally changed today, but as I mentioned this was pretty much what I encountered growing up in little Helena, Montana.

However, Kant did see a rational basis for belief in God - that of morality. You see, for Kant, to be good is to be worthy of happiness. And as we know many good people die without finding happiness. So for that moral law that Kant saw as undeniable to work, there must be an afterlife and some "wise, benevolent, and just Providence ordering the world." (p.180) This, for Kant, is God: simply the guarantee (or guarantor) of the happiness one comes to deserve through his or her morality in life.

How interesting. And this seems to be much the same role that karma plays for Buddhists. It is a law-like causality that guarantees happiness comes to those who do good (puñña). Thus to have experiences of freedom from suffering and the reasoned belief in the possibility of total freedom, one must have some reasonable connection between the two. That is, one must believe that one's actions (karma) will lead to the fruits (phala or vipaka) of happiness or nirvana.

So it seems that in both cases we have reasoned cases for quite different beliefs. Or is it just that we have different words for much the same thing?

In part two I will explore that question, asking, "just what do we mean when we say 'God' - or karma or nirvana?"

* commentators are quick to point out that the end of suffering is not the end of physical pain. The Buddha still had pain as he grew old and died, he simply did not identify with the pain of his physical body. And it is this identification with or clinging to - as 'mine' - pain that causes us suffering.


pdxstudent said...

"Following Kant, and (I think) the Buddha as well, I think that certain things are just too big to fit within our puny intellects. Questions like, "is the universe finite or infinite" or "is there a (Judeo-Christian) God or isn't there" are just silly because they ask our finite, limited minds to judge something that is not with those bounds or limits. The Buddha was famously silent when people asked him such questions and Kant called those who claimed to have an answer pretentious."

If I remember the story (about the Buddha) to which you're referring, wasn't there a bit more going on in his silence? When questioned as to why he didn't answer the person's questions, he pointed out that the person was simply not ready for an appropriate response besides silence, at least in part because he was still asking those sorts of questions. Doesn't that mean that the Buddha had things he could have said, but that the issue at hand wasn't whether these questions were answered or not, but with whether answering them did anything for the problem already present in the fact this person had these questions? Is it that there was no appropriate response to the question at all, and that his silence rebukes pretensions of metaphysical certainty, or given the situation, there was an appropriate response, which was silence?

I tend towards the latter, because I have come to understand the buddhadhamma as a way of life, which is in constant motion and doing. In the Buddha's explanation for his silence, he mentions not wanting to be misunderstood or (further) confuse the questioner. This reminds me of some of the most famous lines in Emerson's essay, "Self Reliance":

"A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines. With consistency a great soul has simply nothing to do. He may as well concern himself with his shadow on the wall. Speak what you think now in hard words, and to-morrow speak what to-morrow thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said to-day. -- `Ah, so you shall be sure to be misunderstood.' -- Is it so bad, then, to be misunderstood? Pythagoras was misunderstood, and Socrates, and Jesus, and Luther, and Copernicus, and Galileo, and Newton, and every pure and wise spirit that ever took flesh. To be great is to be misunderstood."

Skillfull? It's debatable. I think it illuminates the challenge and danger in choosing the appropriate response.

Buddhist_philosopher said...

Hi Joe, sorry for the very late response to your thoughts here. Yes, you're right about the Buddha's explanation for his silence; but I think he also explains that any answer would put him either on the side of the annihilationists or the eternalists, both being doctrines he repudiates elsewhere.

At other times I suppose he does sound like a bit of an annihilationist, saying 'this is not-self, that is not-self...' or at other times like an eternalist, freely using the term 'self' in a conventional manner. So, yes, perhaps consistency was not his goal, but rather finding the appropriate response... :)