Saturday, 23 June 2012

The belief thing and mindfulness, part 1

Life’s full of paradoxes. And we do well to let their strange dissonant music ring through our lives. It’s surely an illusion that only rational linear thought in a nice straight line can yield us valid propositions, or as we like to call them, “the truth.”

Pontius Pilate, according to the Christian Bible, (John 18 v 38) famously asked Jesus about the truth he said he was representing. Or as Francis Bacon put it, “‘What is truth,’ said jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer.” 

Jesus’ answer would surely have been about faith in God, i.e. a belief system. Scholars puzzle over what Pilate meant, but in fairness to the infamous hand-washer, he raises a huge and perennially impossible question.

Some of us have a relative set of answers. Truth is only a product of a time and a place. What’s true here and now wasn’t true there and then. Truth is culturally and historically defined. Something is true until it is proved false. Or even: truth is ultimately impossible; all we can do is test the validity, the usefulness of propositions; truth is an illusion.

Maybe this was Pilate’s public position. Perhaps he was saying that Jesus didn’t seem guilty to him, but that finding the truth, in the furnace of Jerusalem’s politics, was not a feasible ambition. So, as we say nowadays, “oh, whatever….”

Some of us have an absolute set of answers: Jesus did. Many, maybe most, religious people do. They don’t study religions only in a comparative sense; they think, however tolerantly or intolerantly, that their way is the only true way. We all know the agonies and terrors this mindset can deliver to mankind, but I’m not going to get drawn into a typical internet argument: “atheists also do appalling things – Hitler was an atheist.” “yeah, but look at…” etcetcetcetc. I’m just observing that these are two different ways of looking at the world: one is relative, one is absolute.

There is also another position, the position many of us are in. We feel uneasy about a totally relativist position. Some things seem always to be true, for ever and always, anywhere, no matter what the cultural or historical context.

For example: children should never, ever, be corrupted and brutalized. We may try to understand the position, the psychology, of certain people in a particular time or place, but: they simply shouldn’t and mustn’t do it. No ifs and buts, no excuses.

That would seem to all of us to be an absolute. I hope. Even “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” said that if anyone “offends” one of these little ones, “it is better for him that a millstone were hanged about his neck and he were cast into the sea.”

And yet we middle-grounders simply can’t accept that there is, somewhere, one whole belief system that is uniquely and totally true, however attractive in some aspects it might appear. Conversely, we may feel that relative and rational approaches to the world about us hit the buffers on certain huge questions or feelings.

How can it be that me writing this, synapses flashing away, fingers clattering across a keyboard, neck aching etc, this life form, will one day not be? How can it be that you reading this, getting bored or irritated, will one day also not be? Our consciousnesses will simply end. 

Where does a life go? How long is eternity? How big is infinity?

Children, neither relativists nor absolutists, ask such huge questions, and if we give ourselves the chance, we too can feel a sense of profound wonder at these questions, which are only in one sense answerable.

Maths and science can provide answers. But in terms of our mental states, our mindsets, our sense of who we are, we still feel awed and bewondered. Our brains haven’t evolved to finally and comprehensively understand eternity, or to accept nothingness, non-being.

         “What’s it like, being asleep?”
“I don’t know; I was asleep at the time.”
“What’s it like being dead.”
“No-one can tell us.”

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