Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Blasphemy, Certainty, and Wild Conjectures

I've been reading a book called God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World, and Why Their Differences Matter, by Stephen Prothero. In the chapter on Judaism, I came upon this passage that I liked a lot:
“Almost all religions provide opportunities for human beings to convince themselves of their own righteousness, to speak in the name of God, and even to go to war on God's behalf. This 'blasphemy of certainty' is also rife among secularists who in their case have not God but science or the proletariat on their side.”
I liked the whole idea here, but I especially liked the phrase "blasphemy of certainty". When I started looking to see where it came from I ended up in one of those intellectual pinball games I sometimes find myself in on the internet. Turns out it's a quote from an essay called The God of the Desert, by Richard Rodriguez. Which I intend to read, but so far I haven't. Anyway, the passage it comes from is this:
“The blasphemy that attaches to monotheism is the blasphemy of certainty. If God is on our side, we must be right. We are right because we believe in god. We must defend God against the godless.”
Seems true to me. But I also found a similar passage while Googling, from an excellent article by Andrew Sullivan:
The 16th century writer Michel de Montaigne lived in a world of religious war, just as we do. And he understood, as we must, that complete religious certainty is, in fact, the real blasphemy.
These passages linking certainty, war, and blasphemy resonate with me, even though I'm not sure blasphemy isn't, as they say, a victimless crime. If God does exist, and She is in fact omniscient and beyond any human understanding, then surely being certain that we know Her thoughts is hubristic and disrespectful. I don't know if I would call it blasphemy. That word makes me nervous, because it's been the charge brought against far too many people who ended up being executed for it.

But what if that such killings, based on the lesser crime of certainty, is the real blasphemy? I don't believe humans were created in God's image, but for people who do, you would think killing Her special creations would be blasphemy if ANYTHING is blasphemy. Misplaced and prideful certainty is one thing, but killing in the name of that certainty--and doing so in the name of God-- is surely quite another. Both Montaigne and the current Pope have similar points. Montaigne noted that:
"It is putting a very high price on one's conjectures to have someone roasted alive on their account."
While Pope Francis, in a radio address last year, said:
"this ‘closing off’ that imagines that those outside, everyone, cannot do good is a wall that leads to war and also to what some people throughout history have conceived of: killing in the name of God. That we can kill in the name of God. And that, simply, is blasphemy. To say that you can kill in the name of God is blasphemy.”
Hear, hear, gentleman.

As for certainty, even if we could have absolute certainty about everything, would it really be such a gift? Elsewhere in Andrew Sullivan's essay (I'm really bouncing around here, huh? There's a reason this blog's called Ramblebrain) I find a quote from the German playwright Lessing, who said:
"If God were to hold all Truth concealed in his right hand, and in his left hand only the steady and diligent drive for Truth, albeit with the proviso that I would always and forever err in the process, and to offer me the choice, I would with all humility take the left hand, and say, Father, I will take this--the pure Truth is for You alone."
That one bowled me over. It started me thinking in a different direction (ramble, ramble), not about blasphemy, but about truth and certainty. I realized I would make the same choice Lessing did. Sure, I might be tempted by the offer of the full truth, but what would I do with it once I had it? Where would I go from there? If you know all truth, there would be no surprises; nothing to look forward to. Sometimes I lament the fact that my lifespan won't be 1/10th long enough to get any real foothold on Truth with a capital T. Maybe not 1/1000th. But is that really such a tragedy? Maybe it would be a bigger tragedy to actually have the full truth.

I wouldn't know, but I would think it would be mortally boring to be omniscient. To ever find anything interesting, you would have to make yourself forget things. Some people think of God as existing in some kind of state of ultimate sublime wholeness, but would that in fact be a sublime existence? I can't imagine what this hypothetical state even means, or if it exists, but it certainly doesn't sound very interesting to me. You would want to have new things to learn, wouldn't you...new things to create, or see created? You would crave some excitement, and you wouldn't want the spoilers omniscience would give you. It would be like knowing the outcome of every story that will ever be told. It would be the universal spoiler.

What if (and now I'm getting into the wildest kind of speculation) there is or was an omniscient God in possession of omniscience and the full truth, and She found Her existence boring and lonely? And so She decided to forget what She knew, and to allow Her wholeness to fragment--in order to really feel alive? What if that's how this fragmented universe of broken symmetries and diversity came about? What if it's even why it came about? Maybe it was more interesting to create--or even become--a contingent universe that eventually came to include billions of sentient beings with billions of points of view? None of them would have the full truth, but that's the point: they wouldn't know the outcome of the play before the curtain lifted.

Is there a theology similar to this? I imagine there is, but if so I don't know what it's called. It reminds me of the Hindu idea of lila, which I've heard expressed as something like, "The universe is what happens when God wants to play." It's probably not how it happened at all of course, and I don't have a clue if there's a God at all, much less whether She would find her omniscience boring. These are wild conjectures, and I don't put much stock in them--certainly not enough to roast anybody alive. I don't have that much certainty in anything. I don't know the full truth, and I probably never will. And I'm realizing that's a very good thing.

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