Monday, April 10, 2006

The Gospel of Judas.

The image accompanying this essay has been blocked and "errors" are inserted in the text on a regular basis by persons from the Trenton, New Jersey area. My telephone signal is often obstructed and other harassments must be expected at all times.

Elaine Pagels, The Origin of Satan (New York: Random House, 1996), pp. 12-14.
Nancy M. Malone, Walking a Literary Labyrinth: A Spirituality of Reading (New York: Riverhead, 2003), pp. 37-49.
Carol L. Bernstein, " 'Happy Endings'/Unendings: Narratives of Evil," in Maria Pia Lara, ed., Rethinking Evil: Contemporary Perspectives (Los Angeles: University of California, 2001), pp. 225-238.

I like to think of myself "as a card carrying member of the intellectuals' guild." (Norman Mailer) I am not religious in any conventional sense. I am duly suspicious of politicians' statements, skeptical of television commercials of all sorts and duly wary of offers for "free" (look at the fine print) credit cards; or hair replacement techniques (don't need them). Nevertheless, I do read my horoscope in New York Press.

I don't know why I do this careful studying of my horoscope. It's all nonsense, of course, but there was that one time when they said I would have a "good day" and I found a crisp new ten dollar bill. Amazing. How did they know?

Why do we want to believe that the future can be known? Why would we want to know the future, even if it were possible to know it? We would be forced to see all of the unpleasant stuff that awaits us in the fullness of time, like disease and death, the loss of friends and the destruction of all that we have known. It would be almost unbearable to struggle along knowing that the business in which you have invested everything will fail five years from now, because of factors over which you have no control.

Think of the devastation and paralyzing effect of knowing that someone you love will betray your trust and cheat on you with a person that you have considered a friend until now, let's say, in no more than a year or two. Imagine if you could see the sort of people that your neighbor's kids will turn into -- never your own, of course, who will always remain lovely and good. We want to know what will happen to us, even if the odds are that it won't be good.

My guess is that we secretly believe that the news will be good, at least sometimes. We never really believe that we will be the victims of tragedy, even if we should know better by now. None of us can ever accept that life is shit and that we will suffer and die for no reason whatsoever. Hence, the invention of forms of religious worship to coincide with our moral intuitions and optimistic dreams or hopes. True cynics add "love" to that list of naive hopes. I am not willing to go that far. I continue to believe in love and beauty, as hopes and aspirations, if nothing more.

The full text of a third century "Gospel of Judas" has been translated and read by scholars. John Noble Wilford and Laurie Goodstein, "In Ancient Document, Judas Minus the Betrayal," in The New York Times, April 7, 2006, at p. A1.

The document dates from about 280 A.D., but is probably a copy of a text that is perhaps a century older. The Gospel of Mark is from about 60 A.D. In this new scripture, "Jesus is said to entrust Judas with special knowledge and to ask him to betray [Jesus] to the Roman authorities. By doing so, [Jesus] tells Judas, 'you will exceed' the other disciples."

If the narrative adventure of Jesus was determined from the beginning of time, then there was no freedom for him or any of us. Judas was determined to betray Jesus. Thus, Judas is not responsible for his offense. In fact, an omniscient God makes freedom a problem. And if freedom is a problem, then so is morality. Spinoza would say that freedom is only possible in a determinate universe, although Spinoza is usually regarded as one who denies the reality of freedom. I am not sure about that. For his own reasons, Kant agrees on the reality of freedom in a rule-governed universe.

One solution to this ancient dilemma focuses on the "aesthetics of interpretation." The universe becomes a problem in hermeneutics. See my essay Paul Ricoeur and Hermeneutics of Freedom (North Carolina: Lulu Pres, 2004). Suppose that you are an actor hired to play "Hamlet." You have a pretty good idea of how the story will end (and so do we in the audience), also when it comes to our "real" lives, we know how the story ends, since we expect to die. You have great freedom in how you will "play" your part. The same is true if you will play, say, "Iago" in Othello. The range of options is different, certainly. The choices you make are different depending on the role, while the variations in performances are incalculable, even if you do not change a single word in the text.

If you are born into poverty in a crime-infested neighborhood, the range of options is similarly different from the options available to a new-born member of a rich and powerful family. Yet in each instance -- in poverty or wealth -- the genuine choices among options is certainly "real." We exist within narratives of the history of the universe, of our civilization, within the story of a language that makes our thoughts possible and even shapes them. Yet we have choices within those constraints. So evil is an option that makes freedom and even goodness possible, explaining our authenticity as subjects. We choose to become the persons we are within constraints:

The good, like everything else, ... is an idea, and the various virtues -- Benevolence, Justice, Purity, and what not -- can exist only as Ideas perceived or entertained by the mind. But the mind, it must be remembered, cannot realize the existence of anything unless its opposite exists also. We would, therefore, have no word for and therefore no idea of light if we did not know what darkness is, and similarly the Idea of purity could not exist without the Idea of impurity by means of which it is defined. In a world where everybody was equally just or kind, neither Justice or Kindness, would exist in the mind, and hence evils of all kind are permitted in order that their corresponding goods may exist. The cruel man, for instance, is not only tolerated but encouraged because his cruelty serves no less than the kindness of another to make real the Idea of kindness in that consciousness where alone the realest reality can exist.

It follows from this that:

The solution to the problem of evil [in gnosticism] was not only extremely subtle but based upon quite artistic principles since it not only regarded human character from the standpoint of those who would require of a man only that he play his role, villainous or heroic, in a manner suitable to the part he had undertaken, but also viewed the whole universe as a species of drama into which God had introduced evil and suffering in exactly the same way in which a playwright introduces them into his play -- for the purpose, that is to say, of contrast. Seen from such an angle, God becomes an impressario-playwright and man an actor, or, to change the metaphor, the universe is a great painting in which those shadows called evil are no less important or admirable than those highlights called good. (Joseph Wood Crutch)

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, such neat rationalizations of evil are unsatisfactory. The horrors and sufferings of the Holocaust cannot be redeemed by any intricacy of plot in human history, unless God becomes a hideous sadist, which (for some people) may be the case. Professor Susan Neiman's recent book on evil argues this point convincingly.

Others see science as the hideous sadist, because it reveals nature replacing God as "red in tooth and claw." Genes and environment are said to determine our responses, to say nothing of brain chemistry which -- for growing legions of science worshippers -- explains all of our behavior on the grounds that our wishes and even our memories and passions are "nothing but" those little gray cells. Sherwin Nuland, "The Secret Life of the Mind," in The New York Times, Book Review, April 9, 2006, at p. 14, reviewing Eric R. Kandel's In Search of Memory: The Emergence of a New Science of the Mind (New York: W.W. Norton, 2006).

By defining memory in terms of a "dialogue between genes and synapses," scientists commit the classic reductivist error of assuming that an essential ingredient for the existence of a complex and composite organic-social phenomenon, is the whole of that phenomenon. Yet the social phenomenon of language -- for which we are equipped with unique cerebral wiring (Chomsky) -- is just as crucial to memory or consciousness and identity as any single brain cell belonging to an individual. Nevertheless, we would hesistate before reducing memory to "nothing but" a feature of language-acquisition and use.

Atomism fails because the question is not what is more primal a single cell or a process of interaction between genes and synapses, but how does complexity emerge from these basic ingredients of genes and cells interacting and interpreting an environment?

What if freedom and evil -- as dialectical partners -- or mind and brain, are better thought of as "emergent properties"? How about Jesus and Judas? Does Jesus require or permit Judas to choose to betray him? The most fundamental laws of physics -- such as Newton's laws of motion or quantum mechanics -- have also been described as emergent from complex systems. "They [the laws of physics and/or consciousness] are properties of large assemblages of matter," Nobel Laureate Robert B. Laughlin writes, "and when their exactness is examined too closely, it vanishes into nothing." A Different Universe: Reinventing Physics From the Bottom Down (New York: Perseus, 2005), pp. 47-59.

What if love is also an "emergent property" between two complex systems? I guess the issue, then, is exactly how "emergent" that love will be. Science will not provide the magic bullet on this problem of evil. It will not solve the mystery of consciousness in reductivist terms. Science isn't doing much for my love life either, except that I am persuaded to purchase that new "Antonio" cologne. Hey, it's got to be good. How do you think he got Melanie Griffith? It's got to be something in the chemicals.

... science does not stand impassively above the hurly-burly of everyday life. It is part of that hurly-burly, helping to create it, and drawing sustenance from it. To explore how science constructs the idea of what a human is and what it can do, we need also to explore the ways in which the idea of humanness is made meaningful by the culture the scientists inhabit.

Kenan Malik, Man, Beast and Zombie: What Science Can and Cannot Tell Us About Human Nature (London: Phoenix, 2000), pp. 7-8.

It must all make sense somehow, we say to ourselves. All of this pain that life offers us must exist for some reason, except that it doesn't and it isn't. Like a Tsunami or Homer Simpson, life just "is." The point may not be that without a God, everything is permitted, but that without God, every alternative occurrence is equally absurd or arbitrary for us. If you need truth and meaning, then you will find yourself (eventually) reaching for the concept of God/Love. And every human being needs truth and meaning.

This does not falsify morality, I hasten to add, because our moral opinions may remain as valid as we like, or as they ever were -- even objectively "true" (like mathematics) -- even if they are only our own discoveries of how things "must be" if they are to work socially, for any rational creatures (Kant), as opposed to the revelations of a divinity who guarantees them. As Neo said to the Architect of the Matrix: "The problem is choice."

My suspicion, however, is that when you begin to think in terms of moral foundations and the drive in us towards connectedness and community, even love, you find yourself on a kind of philosophical escalator that leads to God's office on the top floor. He's got the third office on the left, right next door to the insurance salesperson. No shrinks are allowed on this floor. Lawyers and accountants are on the lowest floor.

Tarot Card readers and fortune tellers are making a pretty penny in New York in the early twenty-first century. Come to think of it, so are religious groups of all sorts. We want to placate the magical powers that we suspect exist -- no matter what science and our more rational selves say -- not to mention bargaining with the fates for a little bit of bounty, a tiny measure of satisfaction and happiness. We insist that we "deserve" something good for once. Meanwhile, life gives us the finger. Let's give it the finger too. Based on my experience, I believe that we are only really free when we discover the person(s) or value(s) for which we are willing to die. (See what I mean about that escalator?)

We are foolish enough to believe that because we are moral and hard-working, because we make sacrifices and do the right things, that somehow destiny, life or God cares and will reward us. Perhaps we will get something good in return for all the bad things that we have known. The utter nothingness against which we must define ourselves and construct or create "meaning" never really sinks in, no matter how much we pretend that it does, so that we never come to terms with the full extent of our bleak situation. We are free. This frightens us, so we pretend that we are not free, thus proving even more that we are, inescapably, free.

At some level, however, beneath the rational mind, we continue to hope and to dream. Today, we say, TODAY will be the big day, as we drift through our petty and insignificant lives. Maybe because we drift through our petty and insignificant lives, and so little that matters ever happens to us or ever will, we are ripe for totalitarianism. This is a frightening thought.

All it will take is for the right charismatic figure to come along, and we may find ourselves goose-stepping down Fifth Avenue. In my case, I doubt it. Yet I want to shout to the people on the subway trains in the gray suits. "YOU ARE FREE!" All of this anxiety of freedom can be avoided, on the other hand, if we simply continue to believe that our horoscopes may be right when they say ..."the stars are finally aligned favorably for that office romance that you know is brewing near the coffee machine." I prefer my freedom. I want to make that romance happen.

This leads to my answer to the question of rewards. Being moral is like breathing. We do it because it is part of being a living human being. We don't take a deep breath and say: "You see, I just took a breath and now I am alive. Do I not get a reward from the universe?" Why should you? You're only doing what comes naturally. (See my essay on John Finnis.) Well, being moral is like that. It only means that we are behaving like human beings, or trying our best to do so. Much of this, of course, may not apply to attorneys in New Jersey -- especially near Trenton or "Roseland."

People's fantasy lives are crucial to their ability to cope with this grim situation. Freedom is made joyful as well as frightening by imagination. We must dream within the dream that we inhabit, which is another gnostic theme. The alternative is a gray world of gray people. Nowhere is this need for fantasy more evident than in the back pages of the newspapers where, in addition to horoscopes, one finds advertisements for illusions of one sort or another: massage parlors offering "loving care" at 200 dollars for half an hour of "chat," pills that allow you to eat all you like and still lose weight, grow hair, make a million in one month, and so on. ("'Inception': A Movie Review.")

"Nobody ever lost a dime underestimating the intelligence of the consumer," according to the immortal P.T. Barnum. Maybe not, but those seemingly trivial desires for that "always hoped for something" (Tennessee Williams) keep people going, allowing them to get up in the morning and drag themselves to that factory for another day or push away that bottle of Vodka in the evening. So don't laugh at my reading habits and pass me the newspaper, so I can check my horoscope for today.



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