by Randall Frederick
In the middle of dinner, I got up.
Mid-bite, mid-course, mid-napkin-wipe, mid-sentence, I got up and walked out.
Sometimes, my writing at a particular time can seem to indicate that I lean one way or the other. At other times, I have been critiqued for not taking a strong or “more focused” position. It is in my nature to try and balance all sides – if only in my head. To extend compassion and understanding, to “see the other side” and “walk a mile in another’s shoes.” Often, I fail at this, I admit. We all do. Even the moral exemplars tend to offend from time to time, to mis-speak, or are caught unawares and off their game. But, whenever sometime says they see my point but aren’t sure what I really think, feel, or believe, there is a quiver of a thrill. The ability to think, feel, and believe can be disassociated from entertaining an idea and letting it run its due course.
Many ideas die because they are not allowed to germinate. Some, yes, should die. Despite my ability to entertain differing viewpoints so as to come to a measure of balance, there are corners of the existential universe that I am unconvinced should not be given latitude or longitude.
Last Tuesday was a good example. Over dinner with friends, one of the couples turned to me and began asking religious questions. This happens all the time. For me, the most common questions deal with interpreting scripture, being “good enough”, sexuality, and what will happen at the end of the world. Most of my friends have already heard where I stand on any given position, and the entertainment comes now by including new people or variables like current events. “Charles” was invited because he was visiting a family member and I’m sure (unbeknownst to me at the time) there was a measure of intention in seating us together – Charles’ family member wanted me to help him “get his life straightened out.”
I suppose, looking at the night objectively, Charles felt cornered. A few people at the table were pressing him, cutting him off mid-sentence, and trying to box him in with his own words. At one point, he said “I can’t keep up when you all are talking over me and not letting me think about what I want to say.” I grew silent, and would occasionally interject a defense of the things Charles was saying, but finally got up, paid my part of the bill, and walked out. Making fun of someone for not thinking, feeling, and believing like you isn’t my scene.
But neither is the open theology that Charles was sharing with the table.
Indeed, looking at the night objectively, there were a few ways to look at the events.
On the one hand, my friends clearly subscribe to a belief in “instantaneous” salvation. This is not just a Christian concept, mind you. For Christians, now is the day and time of decision (2 Cor. 6:2) and Paul is the premiere example of an instant conversion (see Acts 9). It is amusing to me when I hear talk from pulpits and podiums about “needing to make a decision for Christ right now. You don’t know what’ll happen! You might walk out of this room and get hit by an 18-wheeler! You might die of a heart attack! You never know!” – not because I find the thought of death amusing, or even the concept of a “lost soul” not being able to get to Heaven, but because the Christian narrative forgets that the disciples-come-apostles walked and talked and lived and ate and slept with Jesus for 3 years and even after Jesus’ death still weren’t sure whether they should believe he could “save” them. But again, this is not just a Christian concept. Buddhism teaches about instantaneous enlightenment, First Peoples teach of having vision quests or using herbal means to awaken them to their spiritual reality, and our culture – with its focus on the immediate – helps facilitate this “Need for the Now.” Not much is said anymore about the Power of Process, except to make fun of it or wax nostalgic as though out forbearers had it so much better. I’m just making these expressions up, capitalizing them to make them sound more important, but I hope with this measure of honesty that you can still retain the truth behind them).
On the other hand, Charles, for all of his self-promotion about how “smart” and “really smart” he was, couldn’t keep up with a simple conversation about what he did (or did not) believe. Even when the bar was lowered at least three times by my reckoning, he still laughed it all off and said “beliefs don’t matter.” When pressed, many of the things he had said previously over the course of the night indicated that he was religious (“My soul is perfect” and “Nobody knows what really happened in Syria, except for God”) and he was ready -without provocation – to abandon all of these statements because “it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters.”
Picking up almost any philosophy textbook, you will see nihilism defined in the neighborhood of “an extreme form of skepticism: the denial of all real existence or the possibility of an objective basis for truth.” Though Charles was not aware of the term, I’m sure, his offhand way of dismissing everyone else’s beliefs made a good example of the term in usage. Nothing really mattered; everything was and is chaos so why bother believing in anything when all we have is today? It would have been easy for a table of theists to laugh at his absurdity, and in fact a few did until someone mentioned that the Biblical text of Ecclesiastes espouses the very same idea – all is vanity and nothingness, and every good labor we set out to do is impermanent. Why bother storing up wealth when you are going to die and it will be handed over to someone else?
There was however one major flaw in Charles’ (non)belief in (non)belief – himself.
“My soul is perfect,” he said. “I don’t think I really need anything, because I’m already perfect. So all this stuff about needing a god or a ‘higher power’ is all bullshit to me – no offense – because none of it really matters and we’re perfect anyway. Like, not out bodies, not my body, you know? But my soul is. It’s perfect already, and I can do anything I want because of that. Let me put it like this, I don’t really like to define what I am. I’m more like all of those other religions. Like, a new religion, kind of. I don’t believe in God? But I don’t not believe in God?”
“So which it? The nothing, or yourself?” I asked.
“It’s kind of… you know… Both? God doesn’t exist, but if he did, I’m him. We all are. But we’re not.” he said.
“But our souls are perfect?”
“Divine, even? God-like in flawlessness?” I probed.
Rather than trying to yank my chain, or give me a hard time, this guy seemed genuinely convinced that there was both nothing to the universe and nothing higher/above/outside of it, and that he was an embodiment of the greatest pieces of the universe and what was above/outside of it.
So, of course, with this limitless power in the hands of ignorance, I had to ask him – seriously, mind you – what it was that he wanted. That is, whether there is or is not a god, and whether or not this mattered, if his soul and will really were perfect, what did he want out of this temporary life?
He thought for a few seconds before saying slowly, “I don’t really want anything. I mean, I feel like my soul is perfect. I’m not perfect? But my soul is. So, I’m really okay with anything that happens.”
“What about a job?” his relative asked. “You need a job to get money. I mean, you can’t live with us forever.”
He laughed. “No, see, none of you understand what I’m saying. Of course I need money! I mean, I’ve got to eat! But I really don’t, you see?” Suddenly, he sighed. “None of you are where I’m at,” he concluded, gesticulating to some point far above all of us.
Which is the point in which everyone now sufficiently insulted and their patience exhausted began to turn on him and I excused myself from the table.
Charles is not the first new-ageist I’ve met. He is, however, the most confused. Even the collection of hippies and Scientologists who congregate around Los Angeles are able to articulate what they want. For the Christian, this means salvation; for the Jew it is the eternal blessing, to the Buddhist it is enlightenment, and to the Scientologist it is to “improve his [or her] life.” The articulated desire or end of faith is as important to the religious adherent, indeed to the religion itself, as the construction of the respective deity. To ask for material “blessings” from Buddhism makes little sense. To ask for enlightenment in Christianity makes little sense – indeed, is impossible given the wide space left for mystery (especially as it regards the third member of the Trinity, the Spirit of God). What is more, to not know the desired outcome of faith is dangerous not only spiritually but emotionally and psychologically. Dr. Phil has made a career out of helping his clients and viewers self-actualize. As he puts it in his book Self Matters (2001), if an incongruency exists between our actualized self (which knows what it wants) and our fictional self (which either does not know what it wants, or has chosen to ignore those desires for some reason), that incongruency “is what leads you to feel that your life is incomplete, unbalanced, and altogether more difficult that it really should be.”
Put another way, if you don’t know what you want and what you’re working towards, don’t be surprised when it doesn’t come about. The research that came out of the concentration camps of World War II revealed not only stellar leaps in medicine and science, but psychology as well. It was determined and confirmed categorically that prisoners who were tasked with moving a hill of dirt from one of the camp to the other repeatedly and without explanation, simply gave up the will to live. Without purpose, the repetitive tasks wore down their souls. Without purpose, they succumbed to the chaos and either topped trying – which caused the Schutzstaffel to execute them – or their bodies shut down, making them increasingly susceptible to disease, malnutrition, infection. As numerous psychologists who have reviewed the papers that came out of the camps have concluded, not having something to believe in, to hope for, and to direct yourself towards isn’t just a case of apathy. It can literally kill you from the inside out.
So much for that “perfect soul” theory Charles put forward.
But our ideas stemming from World War II don’t end there.
And neither does the conversation about and with Charles.
Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), a German philosopher, coined the phrase der Wille zur Macht, or “will to power.” The will to power is a popular plaything with philosophers because of the way that it inspired psychotherapy’s development in Vienna. Nietzsche believed that the will to power was the driving force of humanity – achievement, ambition, the amassing of power and control in pursuit of the highest possible position were all manifestations of the will to power. Alfred Adler, a Viennese psychotherapist, extracted Nietzsche’s philosophical proposal and applied it to his patients, developing individual psychology. In this way, Nietzsche’s proposed “will to power” stands in contrast to that which it generated, namely Freud’s pleasure principle (will to pleasure) and Viktor Frankl’s logotherapy (will to meaning). Each of these schools advocated a different driving force in humankind on an private (i.e. “individual”) basis.
It was not Charles’ atheism… or agnosticism… or self-deification… or whatever belief he espoused (or refused… or kinda-held-to-but-not-tightly) that bothered me. Far from it; I respect my well-reasoned non-religious friends and, quite frankly, enjoy their company at times more than my religious friends. It was the way in which he was so proud that he had nothing to live for, to believe in, or to move towards. No love interests, no job prospects or promotions, not the mobility a working car might afford him.
For Charles, it is nihilism which has caused him to think there is nothing left to live for – so why bother either partying it up or riding it down to the gloomy gulag?
With such people, be they non-religious or otherwise, there is no point in celebrating their self-aware lack of self-awareness. And while part of me regrets leaving him defenseless to a table of outraged and insulted scholars… another part of me knows that there is no use in trying. I think my frustration came more from the feeling that here was the first person I have ever met who was truly hopeless, something more akin to an uncertain feeling that here was someone who celebrated not trying even though it has gotten him nowhere in life.
As an epilogue, my friends have filled in me on Charles’ situation. He originally came to stay with them because he realized he needed to “figure things out.”
It has since come to light that he is being brought to trial for a handful of crimes he committed years ago and that a warrant was placed for his arrest the night we had dinner together. He was arrested later that weekend and assigned a court date. Rather than make changes that might persuade the Court that he has turned over a new leaf, Charles continues to maintain that “my soul is perfect, and everything that happens to me is perfect. Besides, no judge is going to put me in prison for stealing credit cards. They can’t do that. They don’t send you to prison just for stealing a couple of credit cards.”
The night of the dinner, he said his soul was “perfect… It’s perfect already, and I can do anything I want because of that.”
Within three weeks, he’ll find out whether that is true.