Sunday, July 25, 2010

"The 'Gator Lost His Mind"

"We Can Now Reveal And Actually Touch The Next Day"

"Art is for the Spirit"

In high school, I wrote an essay on the art of Jonathan Borofsky. The essay coincided with his big show in downtown L.A. at the old Temporary Contemporary. In my mind "Art is for the Spirit" was central to his work. His multimedia presentations (painting, sculpture, video, kinetic, object) still strike me as having a profoundly humanizing influence. Funny enough, the one piece I have usually liked least is the one I come in contact with most: the clown dancer in Venice Beach. Clown imagery has always struck me as too facile, too much a shorthand for "weird." But lately I've appreciated the clown dancer more, especially since my 4-year old saw it the other day and couldn't stop laughing. Now I really, really appreciate it. It's whimsical but it's jarring. And it's public. Needed: more whimsical yet jarring public art, and more public art. Period. I love the mandala-like forms he painted in the 90s using the word "God." I almost wish I still had that high-school essay.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

"Shake Hands With Dr. Hands"

Somehow, Jeffrey Vallance is able to make the incredibly awkward social interaction seem cordial and productive. Read his book of essays about meeting the King of Tonga and the Icelandic Prime Minister for Vallance's idiosyncratic yet absorbing obsessions. (I couldn't find a link to it online.) In this clip he pits Stiv Bators against Dr. Hands (a Christian evangelist) in a "debate" that quickly becomes Dr. Hands attempting to get Bators to accept Christ as his savior. MTV had some potential. A long, long time ago.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Thoughts on Theodicy

No one can can prevent all misfortune from happening to loved ones, nor can anyone make anyone else do the right thing all the time. But no person is omnipotent. So, what's God's excuse? It is Epicurus who is usually credited with first formulating the perennial "problem of evil" that theologians and many philosophers have had to confront ever since:

Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able?
Then he is not omnipotent.
Is he able, but not willing?
Then he is malevolent.
Is he both able and willing?
Then whence cometh evil?
Is he neither able nor willing?
Then why call him God?

The above paradox is often used as a refutation of the existence of God. Nonetheless, believers do not just fold their cards and say, "I am defeated by your paradox." They tend to wrestle with the problem. Many even come up with solutions. For example, Leibniz argued that we live in the "best of all possible worlds," with emphasis on the word possible. (It's a phrase that should be familiar to any reader of Voltaire's Candide in the character Dr. Pangloss, a parody of Leibniz.) Leibniz even coined the useful term "theodicy" as a reference to the philosophical attempt to defend the inherent benevolence and/or existence of God despite all the evil in the world.

Personally, I do not find Leibniz's solution satisfying. The idea that we might live in a bargain-basement moral universe, but that it's also the best God can do, is pretty depressing. Or maybe it's just dark humor. H.L. Mencken did say the best way to explain all existence is to think of God as a low comedian.

My real question, though, is this: Has anyone ever resolved the paradox of evil in a satisfactory way?

For starters, the atheist response cuts out the paradox by removing "God" from the whole business. Fine. But that does not necessarily resolve why there is evil in the world. One atheist response is deterministic, another existential. Neither of those make the universe and the misfortunes that befall humanity seem any less absurd. Then again, maybe evil isn't supposed to be anything but absurd.

For those of us who like to wrestle with paradoxes, I would offer the following four explanations of evil as some of the best that religious philosophy has to offer. They are not airtight explanations, but what is? They are all, at the very least, great thought-experiments. This is also not an exhaustive list. I may add to it in a follow-up.

1. The Gnostic. If Leibniz's overly optimistic theodicy rests at one end of the believers' spectrum, the ancient Gnostics exist at the other end. In the early centuries of the Common Era, Gnosticism in several varieties sprung up around the Mediterranean as a fascinating combo of Christian theology and Hellenistic mysticism. The Persian mystic Mani (third century CE) was another major exponent of a gnosticism that might have had an influence on the medieval Cathars and Bogomils in Europe. There was even a Jewish gnosticism in the medieval Kabbalah. What almost all these sects shared was a dualistic view of the universe to explain evil: physical reality was created not by a loving God, but rather by an imperfect and perhaps evil demiurge. The real, ethereal God is totally separate from all empirical phenomena but can be accessed through mystical ritual and practice. Knowledge (a.k.a. "gnosis") of the real God will lead to liberation of the soul. Christian Gnostic sects obviously viewed Jesus as the embodiment in some form or another of the real God.

2. The Pagan Neoplatonist. Plotinus was a philosopher in ancient Alexandria in the third century CE. He was a Neoplatonist by our modern standards, in that he sought to apply the teachings of Plato, especially Plato's theory of forms. Simply put (perhaps too simply), Plotinus merely saw evil as imperfection. The material world of Being could never measure up to the ideal world beyond Being. Therefore, anything here that we consider evil, from human cruelty to rotting plants, is really a kind of ugliness that we know would not exist in the ideal world of forms. The One that is the source of all things (i.e., the Prime Mover and Sustainer that is beyond Being and non-Being) contains no such ugliness or blemish. This all implies a kind of mysticism similar to that of the Gnostics because perfection is beyond rational comprehension. All we know is this world, except for what we might see in some mystical union with The One, which Plotinus was reported to have done four times in his life.

3. The Existential Christian. Nicolai Berdyaev was a former Communist (in Russia, no less) who, some years before the Russian Revolution, converted from atheism to Russian Orthodox Christianity. He eventually relocated in Paris and developed a fascinating Christian existentialism in which humanity enters a relationship with the Divine through creativity. Like any good existentialist, he theorized about the meaning of freedom. "Freedom is God," he wrote. As for evil, then, God is still omnibenevolent and reigns supreme over all existence, but God has no control over one thing and one thing only: nothingness. Evil as it appears in the world is simply that which comes out of chaos. I find this the most novel Christian approach to evil, as it removes from the equation confused leftovers of dualistic mythology about Jesus battling Satan in some weird cosmic war in which we in our remote corner of the universe somehow play a central part. Instead, evil remains an absurdity, and God remains worthy of worship. Berdyaev has his cake and eats it, too. What I like even more is that evil is not a consequence of freedom, as the free-will version of theodicy puts forth. Berdyaev had a positive view of human freedom.*

4. The Rational Optimist. Marilyn McCord Adams is an Episcopal priest and philosopher. Unlike Mani, Berdyaev, and Plotinus, she is a modern contemporary. She is alive! In a nutshell, she circumvents the whole paradox of theodicy and avoids asking why is there evil. Instead, she emphasizes that evil exists, and how can we respond to it? She says that the rational response to horrendous evil is pessimism. We should not expect a witness to genocide to be Dr. Pangloss. However, if one should wish to have an optimistic view of life despite horrendous evil and still remain rational, one needs to believe in some transcendent good (or God himself). Only an ineffable transcendence that is good can offer a rational reason for a human to see life's glass as half full. You could view this as a mere reworking of the old "God works in mysterious ways" rationalization of evil. But what I appreciate about it is that she doesn't justify suffering and defends pessimism! That seems quite compassionate. To live a good life, neither the pessimist nor the optimist should waste too much time wondering "Why me?"

*The one big drawback to Berdyaev's idea is that a god who cannot control nothingness might be a limited god. As Epicurus would ask, "Then why call him God?"

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Epicureanism and Buddhism

Last night, I noticed we owned a brand of food processor called the "epicure" model. Now, when I see the word "epicure," I think of Epicurus, Greece's third century BCE sage of the good life. But the name of the processor reflects, of course, the pervasive conception of Epicureanism: that it's basically the foodie philosophy. I hesitate to call it a "misconception" of the original philosophy of Epicurus, though, since the foodies at least acknowledge that pleasure in life is good, and so did he.

The actual philosophy that Epicurus espoused, however, went deeper than merely having good taste. That is a somewhat watered-down version of what his ideas were. To be sure, Epicurus was a hedonist. And hedonism is the view that pleasure should be the goal of life. But pleasure, to Epicurus, did not imply physical indulgence. Rather, pleasure was the avoidance of pain and fear. Through this way of seeking pleasure, one also achieves the state of ataraxia, or tranquility.

How can there be too much pleasure in life? In the Epicurean view, excesses of physical pleasure inevitably lead to some kind of pain (e.g., too much alcohol leads to a hangover, binge-eating leads to a stomach ache, too much amplified music leads to tinnitus, etc.). All physical or sensual pleasures, therefore, need to be experienced in moderation. In a sense, moderation makes the good experiences even more enjoyable.

Epicurus himself wrote this pithy quatrain to describe the path to happiness:
God should not concern us.
Death is not to be feared.
What is good is easy to obtain.
What is bad is easily avoided.
The second line above is one of Epicurus's main points. The fear of death is the main fear to overcome. "Death," he wrote, "therefore, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not."

So simple. So logical. At the same time, so hard to really embrace. Isn't fearing death built into us over eons of evolutionary time? Without the fear of death, for example, our species would never have feared predators. We'd never have gotten off the ground. So, to lose the fear of death is to turn against our very survival. But to lose the irrational or obsessive fear of death is different and is what I believe Epicurus was talking about.

His whole approach reminds me of the Middle Way of Buddhism. The Buddha taught that the extremes of asceticism on the one hand and indulgence on the other were both misdirected paths. Such extremes lead to attachment, which the Buddha's Second Noble Truth tells us is the cause of suffering. The term craving is interchangeable with attachment. For example, as an ascetic one can become obsessed with self-flagellation, self-denial, purity, holiness, or simply the release of endorphins. Any obsession is a form of craving.

What, then, does an attitude free from craving look like? Almost echoing Epicurus, the Dhammapada describes happiness this way:
Health is the greatest of gifts, contentedness the best riches; trust is the best of relationships, Nirvana the highest happiness.
In these terms, Buddhist Nirvana sounds much like Epicurus's concept of ataraxia. The goal is to remove fear, pain, and anxiety from your life rather than to add happiness and joy. Now, I know I am generalizing about Buddhism when, in fact, there are many different schools of thought about the Buddha's teachings, mostly grouped in either the Mahayana or Theravada divisions. But the upshot here is that Buddhism generally shares with Epicureanism a value on the avoidance of extreme states in life and the recognition of a path out of suffering.

Buddhism also shares a similar view on deities. Often, Epicurus is claimed as a proponent of atheism, since he had a well-developed theory of atomism to explain Nature. But he himself denied being an atheist, at least being an atheist per se. He was more of a deist. "First believe that God is a living being immortal and blessed," he wrote in his Letter to Menoeceus, "according to the notion of a god indicated by the common sense of mankind; and so believing, you shall not affirm of him anything that is foreign to his immortality or that is repugnant to his blessedness."

In the Epicurean worldview, however, the existence of God or of the gods is irrelevant to how life should be lived here and now. "For the utterances of the multitude about the gods are not true preconceptions but false assumptions...." In fact, if the gods were to worry about humans at all, then the gods would not be tranquil, and certainly they seek ataraxia themselves, don't they? (In my next post, I'll discuss Epicurus's famous and brilliant formulation of the problem of evil as it relates to the existence of God.)

Even though the Buddha's teaching did not involve worship of deities, he too did not deny their existence. Some Buddhist sects still revere deities or god-like beings today: Pure Land, Vajrayana, etc. But, like Epicurus, Buddha taught that what humans can do in a virtuous life is at least on par with what any god could achieve:
The gods even envy him whose senses, like horses well broken in by the driver, have been subdued, who is free from pride, and free from appetites.
Being free from appetites seems almost as hard as to be free from the fear of death. But these philosophers doubled-down on their simple yet impossible-seeming ideas, creating communities to live out their precepts. For Epicurus, it was The Garden. For the Buddha, it was the sangha. Neither of them were satisfied with mere ideas. In that spirit, we in the West can revisit Epicurus, a "Western Buddha," and his ancient non-religious wisdom tradition. If our food processors pave the way, so be it.