Monday, December 21, 2009

Yes, Ross, Nature is suffering and death. And the First Noble Truth is noble.

I'll say this for Ross Douthat, "conservative" op-ed columnist for the NY Times. He's better than the guy he replaced. However the fact that the NY Times still publishes folks whose columns can be kindly called sophomoric, should give everyone pause. Today's column is a fine example, a jeremiad against "Hollywood pantheism." Now Hollywood pantheism is a subject that I, too, can join in criticism, because it appears simplistic, it trivializes profound ideas, but it should not be taken seriously because, in the end, it's not meant to be serious.

Now, for full disclosure I should point out that I prefer the term "non-theist" applied to myself when describing theism and related philosophies, and "pantheism" to me, is an inapplicable category for Buddhists. I must also disagree with D. T. Suzuki and Shaku Soen's attempt to use the term panentheism, because, although they were trying to put the ideology of Buddhism in terms Westerners at the time could understand, the reality is the terms of discourse for discussion of Buddhist concepts such as sunyata, Dharmakaya and the like were generated largely independently of Western theological categories, and so it makes little sense to try to shoehorn Buddhist philosophical categories and concepts into Western categories and concepts. In fact, the very presentation of Buddhism as a set of concepts "to be believed" is very much at variance with the "Noble Truths" of Buddhism, which can be practiced and considered experimentally, without recourse to belief.

But putting Buddhism in terms unsuited for it is often done, and the folks who tend to do it the most are either proponents of Christianity or New Age Woo. So I can almost sympathize with Douthat. Particularly if pantheism is equated with Buddhism, which is often done both by New Age-ists as well as "Christian apologists." Douthat writes:

[P]antheism opens a path to numinous experience for people uncomfortable with the literal-mindedness of the monotheistic religions — with their miracle-working deities and holy books, their virgin births and resurrected bodies. As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski noted, attributing divinity to the natural world helps “bring God closer to human experience,” while “depriving him of recognizable personal traits.” For anyone who pines for transcendence but recoils at the idea of a demanding Almighty who interferes in human affairs, this is an ideal combination.

Indeed, it represents a form of religion that even atheists can support. Richard Dawkins has called pantheism “a sexed-up atheism.” (He means that as a compliment.) Sam Harris concluded his polemic “The End of Faith” by rhapsodizing about the mystical experiences available from immersion in “the roiling mystery of the world.” Citing Albert Einstein’s expression of religious awe at the “beauty and sublimity” of the universe, Dawkins allows, “In this sense I too am religious.”

Then of course Douthat pitches that a theistic religion must be superior - presumably not only to pantheism but to all other "-isms" or lack thereof - because death is scary.

The question is whether Nature actually deserves a religious response. Traditional theism has to wrestle with the problem of evil: if God is good, why does he allow suffering and death? But Nature is suffering and death. Its harmonies require violence. Its “circle of life” is really a cycle of mortality. And the human societies that hew closest to the natural order aren’t the shining Edens of James Cameron’s fond imaginings. They’re places where existence tends to be nasty, brutish and short.

Religion exists, in part, precisely because humans aren’t at home amid these cruel rhythms. We stand half inside the natural world and half outside it. We’re beasts with self-consciousness, predators with ethics, mortal creatures who yearn for immortality.

This is an agonized position, and if there’s no escape upward — or no God to take on flesh and come among us, as the Christmas story has it — a deeply tragic one.

As I wrote yesterday, death is our lot itself. It is true that humans (and for that matter, dogs, elephants, other primates and other mammals) are not happy with that. Theistic religion's response, as apprehended by Douthat, is to view himself and his fellow humans as partly outside of nature, hoping, despite evidence to the contrary, that there's an "upward escape."

My apprehension of Buddhism though would say that no escape is likely, and in a world where no escape is likely and yet we still must act (since there is simply no avoidance of it), we must act to mitigate suffering and strife and discord while we're here, because that is the way we can be most merciful to ourselves and others.

To whatever extent we're within, and apart from Nature is irrelevant. No rescue ship is coming, and the hungry still need to be fed.

1 comment:

paul said...

this is a great site about the new mystery religion!