Saturday, November 05, 2011

Dining in Lima: No reason to believe in God (!)

I had a late dinner this evening. I still have some white cheese, and to make a meal I got dinner rolls from Jimmy's bakery, then I went to the supermarket for fresh boneless chicken breasts, mixed vegetables, salad dressing, bananas, and two litres of drinkable yoghurt (coconut and peach). It cost me about ten dollars, and I have about $7.50 left for the next few days or so. I cooked everything on a hotplate at the little kitchen on the rooftop of my place. I sat down and dined, if not in style, then in lovely comfort. I found myself saying that there must be a god, for how else could I have such a wonderful dinner in the warm air with the lights of Lima showing off my meal. I was almost swooning as I ate. It was a fine meal. But, as happy as I was, it doesn't prove the existence of God. If my heavenly meal depended on God, then as soon as I don't have any food, and there have been many times when there is famine and I have been as starving as others, then without food, where is God? My meal was the best I've had in a long time, and as much as I like it, it proves and disproves nothing about God. It only proves that when I have money and access to good food I can make a fine meal. A genuine believer would believe in God even if he were starving. I don't see myself believing in anything during a famine but in the basic mindlessness of nature and the folly of men and their oft times evil ways. This evening, if not a belief in God, I do have a piece of heaven. I am blessed.


truepeers said...

You say you don't believe in "God" and yet "God" is clearly a meaningful concept for you. Your thinking here depends on the concept even as you deny belief in it. So, how exactly don't you believe in "God"?

I'd say that "God" is our sign for whatever it is that seems to guarantee the universal Being of humankind. You can go to Lima or anywhere and feel some kind of transcendence, i.e. a sharing in a universal Being; it's universal because you can recognize that the high you feel is something any man anywhere can also experience. We all share in some common existence.

Life is meaningful, even if that meaning is imagining a "meaningless nature" where your sense of "God" becomes that of a cold bitch who gives no thought to birthing or destroying you. I mean, it's not like your mind empties out when facing starvation and you know nothing more than a hungry dog knows. For the man, a "cold bitch" still has to be there, substituted for a loving "God". You can't escape the choice between a (neo)pagan or a monotheist divinity.

In short, you recognize we all share in something that transcends all of us and whose existence cannot be reduced to the will or conniving of any one man or group. Any attempt at reducing the experience of your meal, or of starvation, to some meaningless nature or to some biological imperative, or to some conspiracy of the powerful one percent, or to the true humanity of the decent majority, would be a logical fallacy. Rather your experience is of an emergent quality, only in some ways unique to you, of a 100% shared human existence.

"God" clearly exists as a meaningful concept that helps us make sense of our experience of some kind of human communion/suffering. The only real question is what is this "God" (whether of a loving, or cold bitch) experience. We have the experience even if we wish to deny it is what some other (religious) guy thinks it is.

We can do our best to explain this experience anthropologically, as a function of how human language works. But doing that can never settle the question of whether or not this shared humanity came into existence solely through human means, because we cannot explain our experience of transcendence through any possible conception of human means. We can only conceive of means in terms of discrete agencies and not in terms of complex human systems with emergent and transcending qualities that no one foresees or controls.


Dag said...

Food for thought, as always, Peers. My point was that the good can't be enough to make anyone a believer, a reward for the transcendent being so long as it provides nice meals, for example. One believes in spite of the good of life, or one doesn't.

I'm taken by the piety of some many people here who are, unlike the atheists occupying St. Paul's Cathedral for example, people who are in some significant sense, 'poor' and who are deeply committed to their religion, and will remain so even if they were to become poorer. It's not a matter for them to say that if the state won't forgive their student loans, then there is no god. Same with my dinner. If I only believed in God when I have a nice meal, I would only be a believer on rare occasions for the course of whatever it is that pleases me. A good meal is "no reason to believe in God."

One of the things that makes my travels good for me is seeing life from different angles, easy to do when one is disoriented most of the time by setting and climate and language and customs, and simple tiredness from a day of trying to negotiate ones own life in a place where one is mostly lost to all that one can assume. To a great extent, 'it doesn't work that way here.' One must reassess and reconsider and try to figure out what normal is and how one can deal with it.

Part of the experience of this wandering life is to confront the problem of not belonging. To be a life-long exile is to find ways of accepting the strange and asking if the strange is worthy of liking. The strange is often so strange that it is not within the realm of the human, in my mind. One can experience war, for example, and think that it is so terrible that there cannot be a god if he allows for this. That would be, to my mind, trivial. If God exists only at dinner time at a nice restaurant, then God is not worth more than the price of a meal, and he is likely far less important than the chef who makes my meal. But there is far more to it, which I am blessed to encounter even in the horrors I might see now and then. One can find mystery even in the horror, and that tells me there is more to life than fun. One might take the whole of it as one thing, rather than selecting only the good and hating if there isn't lots of it all the time. One would have to remain a believer in spite of the good stuff. One could come to worship the chef if one believed because of the good and disbelieved in hard times.

But I don't know what is going on most of the time. I had a wonderful evening with three French speakers last night, and I missed all of their jokes, which were obviously very funny, given the laughter. But I got the laughter. I would still like these people even if they hadn't been laughing and shouting much of the evening. There were some serious moments too. All of it was them. I missed a lot. But I got the important parts in outline. That's the best I can hope for, if time allows.

I'm off to church, in spite of knowing even less about Catholicism than I do of French jokes. There might be some clue there that opens some new understanding for me. It needn't be much for me to take away some good insight. And it need not be anything the priest would say. It might be a crack in my vision that allows for some experience to slip in. It doesn't have to be good or pleasant. It just has to happen. Things of this nature occur often when I'm on the road, and I hope to stay this way. As I've mentioned before somewhere, life for me is a mosaic rather than a painting. All the little pieces might someday show a picture that at this time is still a bunch of random bits. So, it's church. Tomorrow it will be something else. I have no way of knowing. Maybe it will someday be clear. Maybe not. I'll believe it when I see it.

truepeers said...

The strange is often so strange that it is not within the realm of the human, in my mind. One can experience war, for example, and think that it is so terrible that there cannot be a god if he allows for this. That would be, to my mind, trivial. If God exists only at dinner time at a nice restaurant, then God is not worth more than the price of a meal, and he is likely far less important than the chef who makes my meal.

War is not specifically human. Inter-group combat over resources occurs within other species. What is specifically human is the need to bind people around a common sacred centre. God has always been more of a reality within a community than among all humans, or between warring groups, though the Jewish discovery of the one God who is not just Israel's but also everyone's God is historically an important step forwards in recognizing the universal Being of all humanity, and it's why many Jews are pacifists wanting to extend the God who defers violence within the community into a worldwide reality. In other words, God rarely mediates conflict between groups, though there are exceptions like the various Christmas ceasefires that the soldiers of World War I recognized, to the chagrin of commanders. Even in our times there is not yet, in practice, a common source of sacrality for all humanity, though maybe we are moving in that direction with Western ideas of the sacrality of individual freedom (the freedom to leave any community; the freedom to define who belongs within your community). That is the only possible common denominator.

You know the old idea that there are no atheists in foxholes. It is probably not entirely true. But the power of the idea is in the recognition that those without much faith don't generally come to God when times are good but, more often, when they are desperate. Similarly, those who lose faith often do so not in times of luxurious decadence (though it happens) but in face of a catastrophe in which the old god(s) seem to have abandoned us.

This reminds us what the sacred and the Being which seems to guarantee it is for: to save us from our capacity to destroy each other. But this begins as a reality within the tribe and its extension to humanity as a whole is the challenge God has put to us.

Dag said...

War is not war in the sense war has been war from the dawn crawling things. Since von Clausewitz [1780-1831] I think we Modernists have to come up with a whole new word for what we now call war as we practice it. What Achilles did with Hector is not what the Enola Gay did to Hiroshima. Archilochus (c. 680 BC – c. 645 BC) couldn't write poetry about Dresden. Even Wilfred Owen would be hard pressed to get out quill and quire to scratch about Predator drones over Pakistan. Modern military practice is not the thing it was even a few hundred years ago. And it gets, as I think, worse every day. Napoleon had civilian and often times peasant volunteers who, even with the advent of real manufacture in war, (i.e. industrial 'making by hand' as opposed to manufacturing by man by hand, i.e. manu+factura) still stood up and took shots at men they could see drop, bleed, and possibly die. A control booth in Houston with a girl pressing a keyboard button is hardly Archilocus taunting the enemy about leaving them souvenirs, i.e. dead bodies after a battle. Dropping an atom bomb on a city is not war as men have known it, no matter how many people ones army might kill, a good example being Hulagu Khan (c. 1217 – 8 February 1265), who might have killed more people at Baghdad (according to Wikipedia, "higher estimates range from 200,000 to a million") in almost the same time (a week) as America killed Japanese at Hiroshima. It's not at all the same thing. We can hardly call what we do today "war." It's so qualitatively different that it needs a new term to differentiate it from war as we know it throughout history and prehistory. Even our reasons for -- reluctantly-- waging war are foreign to almost everyone on earth now, in that we don't wage war for land, prestige, manly virtue, women captives or sacrificial victims and so on. We wage war, as it were, because we can't buy what we would prefer to but. The idea that we wage war for oil is incredibly stupid. We have at least millions of barrels of oil available at home every day and we can find more if we need to. We go to war because we can't find another, less costly way to get what we need. And then it becomes a science project. It's not "war" in a sense I can understand it. Muslims wage war. I understand them. Americans do something else, and I am asea. American military work makes no sense to me at all. Muslims I get just fine.

But there is more to war than fighting and killing and destroying the enemy's ability to defend itself. There is the human factor that is almost all missing in Modernist warfare, not completely missing but not the way war is classically. War today in Modernity is not about defeating individuals. It's closer to Islamic terrorism, Modernity's killing being clinical and specific but not personal, similar to a car bombing, the latter being indiscriminate but impersonal as well.

I'm saying there is no bond there. I won't say there's no bond between men on the same side. I mean there is no bond between enemies able to appreciate the strength, skill and valour of one who might beat ones own and destroy his people. May the better man win is nonsense in Modern war because it comes to ones machines being better than another's. "My dad can beat up your dad" means something. "My little sister's finger can press a button that launches a Predator drone that can wipe out your village" doesn't make any sense. Maybe your dad can still beat up my dad in spite of my little sister's missiles fired from Texas. No one actually "loses" a war like that. They just get killed by better technology, which is a far cry from losing a fight. It's not a real fight. It's just killing. Road kill.

Dag said...

There is that binding that comes from sharing hardship that cements a group. The hardship can be building a barn. It can be going to church where one faces, personally, others who live the same life on this earth, a life that is hard and that one must share in some fashion, united in the struggle by belief in goodness and salvation. _Religio_, to an extent meaning "binding," is some kind of war against, and becoming united with others. It's interpersonal.

We in the Modern world are mostly atomic, we are I rather than us. We live among each other, but we are ultimately alone. In other culuters aloneness is hardly possible for the person, he being not a person but a place-holder, as the historian Lawrence Stone puts it. One is not oneself but is a thing of a whole. Anyone can replace him, and the man knows it, accepting that he is part of that whole, an essential place-holder if not an essential being in himself. That gives him meaning. In an atomic world, it doesn't matter if one is even a place-holder person. There is no cement. One might instead fake it by being a pig hippie banging a drum in a park with other pig hippies in imitation of a some fantasised primitive tribal group one has no grasp of the sense of. "It's probably like this for authentic people." But it's not. It's all a fakery. We are stuck with alone. Thus, Voegelin gets it right when he argues about the political religion of fascism, the fasces meaning "binding" in a way similar to but different from religio. Both validate man's being among other men.

If one can pretend to have a religio or a fascses to be part of, then one might be quite happy to forego God. One has the binding. But to be alone and to know one is alone and to not be part of mankind in a holistic sense is to look on God as something entirely different. Then God becomes something more than a trivial topping on a good cake.

War can make one a solid part of a good binding. So can religion. And so, unfortunately, can a poligion. None of this requires God. That is for the individual, I think. But here I run out of sense altogether.

truepeers said...

I don't think there's any money to be made in war anymore, at least not for a modern society. Political imperatives trump economic ones and the political is not simply there to serve the economic, quite the reverse. The U.S. doesn't go to war for cheaper oil - if that were the imperative, they could just take over the oil fields, put up a perimeter around them and take the oil at low cost. But they won't do that for various political/cultural reasons that trump the economic, and because of that war is an expense, and the attempt to lower costs is partly behind the ever greater emphasis on technological innovations like drones.

That technology is not just an American obsession. The Islamic world is also obsessed with it and its terrorist wing is in good part focussed on thinking about how to destroy our technology or use it against us to the same ultimate anti-modern end. In that sense there is still a binding of rivals that must become personal for those who are deeply involved in terrorism and counter-terrorism, even if you never meet face to face. BUt yes, inevitably in a world of nukes, there can't be total war anymore and much military action will be more of a mopping up action rather than the central stage of conflict which has now shifted to the battle for hearts and minds between those who would extend the global political economy and those who would destroy modernity as something unacceptably other because it's led by Americans/Jews/Whites etc.

I think it's a mistake to see modernity as only the radically new. It is and it is isn't. The world expands but nothing of any substance disappears completely. The fundamentals of humanity don't disappear; they can't. We may live in a world of atomic individuals but we are still bound by religion and the world of things. Neo-pagan thinking is everywhere though it's not quite the same thing this time around. Ultimately it comes down to a choice about how you want to see the world. You can see the market transactions of modernity as alienating or you can see them as the means by which you build your own sacrality and share it with others in a never-ending series of exchanges. In a lot of ways people are more connected today than they've ever been.

But yes, it's true that the idea of God for the modern individual is something different from the world of the pagan gods and the myth/ritual of the tribes. But this modernity of the individual, defined by a covenant between God and man, and not a world where the masks/totems are more important than the men who wear them, didn't begin just yesterday with high tech stuff, but rather some thousands of years ago at Sinai. The ethical innovation anticipates the later technology and not vice versa. We are not shaped by the machine and machines that do not serve pre-existing ethical requirements will not be adopted. We should not be quick to assume alienation but should try harder to see the ethical reasons behind the high tech mediation of human conflict.

truepeers said...

p.s. what i wrote at the end there about machines serving pre-existing ethical requirements is not to ignore the use of technology to do evil. That happens of course. But the evil, as I would see it, is still rooted in some kind of primitive ethical code, e.g. in the supposed need for human sacrifice. It is not the case that the technology itself explains the emergence of the evil.

Dag said...

I guess there might be a personal bond between the terrorist and the counter-terrorist searching for him, in the same way a police investigator might have a personal relationship with a serial killer he can identify as yet, a need to look inside the mind and figure out who the criminal is, maybe on occasion having some admiration for cleverness and deviousness; but there is a different relationship between rivals who meet face to face and who struggle over, say, a football. I prefer to look at mountain climbing, a hard effort in which men rely on themselves to reach the summit but who also rely on partners in what can be life and death situations, and because one relies and then knows immediately that another is both strong and reliable, one is no longer in doubt, all questions, at least for the time, settled that the man is solid. In such a case it becomes a joy to admit to another than one is weaker or less able or simply grateful. But equals too in a struggle, even if one is less able but competent. going together and winning is a cause of bonding that is certain. It creates a mutual trust and faith for the next time. In a fight, assuming it is shared, as it were, one knows who is the winner, and there is no shame in defeat. One is compelled to respect the victor so long as one is able to see that one man, not some anonymous machine, has by his own abilities triumphed. There is at least a grudging respect that often ends in deeper friendship so long as there is no cowardice on either part. Yes, Achilles dragged Hector in the dirt and humiliated him; but Achilles paid dearly for that, breaking the rules of manliness. There is no respect for an enemy if one shoots missiles from who knows where at someone, who knows who. And so too with commerce. Bombarding people with pop music, for example, is a defeat by machine of others. It can't gain respect for the victor. War still has to be a manly effort. Otherwise it's not much more than murder. So too with commerce and culture. If one loses the girl to a better man, such is life. If he pulls out a pocketful of credit cards, it's no show of better, and the better man will hate and resent not having had his qualities as a man reckoned with. And so on. Manliness counts, and it is clear when one sees it. A metrosexual with too much money might get all the girls, but he is not the man a man is who might not have a family slush fund to back him up.

Dag said...

Making money from war is a matter of theft. If one takes from the vanquished, as is right, it still comes to taking because one is so strong the other cannot defend his property. If the war is just, so is the taking. But one must make it plain from the start that it is reciprocal. And then one must act properly, as we did in the aftermath, however belated, of the Civil War, incorporating the vanquished in our gains so they too can create anew rather than squander the gains. But in the case of jihadis and their populations, I'm not interested at this point in sharing the gains. I am in favour of strictly stealing anything they have, enriching private individuals on the basis of what they can get from the vanquished. War in this case is man to man and in large part a matter of theft, the good coming from the weakening of the jihadis coffers so they can't continue to fight effectively. Hack their bank accounts till they are financially bled to death, or something. Stealing their physical assets is not much use to us. But if one were able to steal all their money, they would then be hurt severely and the victor would benefit greatly. It would have to be man to man again, one man taking from another, not one state capturing another's oil fields, for example, but one man looting another's bank account.

Dag said...

I live in a country of extreme disparities between wealth and poverty, there being Wall Street bankers living in the same general area as Stone Age people. The population of this city doubles about every ten years, as I understand it. Close to one third of the people now live in Lima. There are other major cities here taking in people from the primitive, the new-comers being poor. Of course they're poor. What do they have to offer to become even adequate in the economy here? Well, they have children. Their children might in time become economic assets. Their children might become so far better off economically and individually that they too will be healthy, wealthy, and satisfied with Modernity, even if they never make it to Wall Street. It's a ten thousand year leap in a generation. Here, unlike in parks across America, people know what poverty is, and they do not like it. They do not see life in America as oppressive because they have exorbitant student loans to repay. They see instead a chance to sell boiled corn on the sidewalk as a chance to become well off. There's a price to pay for all this openness to relative wealth.

Who knows his neighbour? Where is one from? What is the point of all this stuff? Here for now there are clear answers to those questions: family, religion, and nation. I don't know that it's a matter of dysthymia rising from alienation, from displacement from simple routines and contact with nature. I see instead regularly a city of more or less contented people.

Most people in Peru will have at least some sense of how terrible things were here 10-20 years ago, war, terrorism, and extreme poverty being the norm. They aren't so well off today that they can sit around complaining that life isn't perfect. They might just feel that things are so good they are happy about it. This place is a paradise of consumer goods and relative wealth. And I am sure it's in a major economic slump, given that I have walked from one end of the city to another for a month and have not yet seen a single crane, not one new building built, no new business created. Nothing new, from what I see, but life goes on, and it goes on pretty well. It does so because of food, that coming from chemistry and biochemistry and so on, from fertilizer and machinery. We can all eat really well every day. Then, at the end of the day, there is something left to go out and buy a colourful blouse or an electronic thing or to take a walk in a clean, well-lighted place that's safe and happy. It's not paradise here, but it is good, and it comes from having enough to eat, a place to live, and a hope that things will get better, or at least not bad again.

I love the Modern world because it allows people to live in peace and contentment. I hate it too because it seems to lead some to misery in the face of imperfections. Knowing real poverty is a sure cure for that pose. This, life in a bettering place, is good. It keeps people honest.