Thursday, April 25, 2019


Andrew Klavan
profile pic from Facebook

Earlier today I was checking Andrew Klavan’s Facebook to see if he had a new podcast. He had laryngitis last week, and he hasn’t posted a podcast this week, so I imagine he’s taking some needed time to get better. But he did post a piece he had written for City Journal. It’s long, and thought-provoking, and along the lines of things I’d been thinking about at a more general level. So I’m going to cover some of his points today, along with my own, about believing.

I’ve noticed that there are a couple of types—probably a spectrum, but we’ll settle on types to simplify—of people’s attitudes toward belief. Some are open to possibilities, and willing to believe quickly, or at least experiment to see if an idea posited to them bears fruit if acted as if true. Some people are more resistant to belief, being more concerned about being misled. They’d rather be wrong while missing out on truth than wrong by foolishly believing untruths.

It seems to me to be a choice, but it might be an innate tendency, or a way of thinking encouraged by individual life experience and surrounding milieu. Nature or nurture. Or a combination. I find myself easily willing to believe enough to see if an idea bears fruit. I am more willing to seek truth that way than I am concerned about avoiding being misled. It puts me on Andrew Klavan’s side of that divide.

The point of Andrew Klavan’s essay, as he puts it, is that:

the modern intellectual’s difficulty in believing is largely an effect created by the overwhelming dominance of the Enlightenment Narrative, and that narrative is simplistic and incomplete.
I agree with him. But his is a more academic point—I don’t mean simple easy to understand; I mean more appealing to academics who have all studied a certain set of thinkers. I am, rather, just looking at the basic ability to believe. Why is believing hard?

Klavan’s piece begins with several examples of people who see clearly that Western civilization is based on the fruits of living Judeo-Christian values. Science isn’t a break from that; it is an outcome. He shows several thinkers, and their writings, many of which seem to show the value of Christianity—yet they remain unbelievers.

There is Michel Houellebecq, and his 2015 novel Submission, which Klavan says exemplifies what he’s trying to say. This book, he says, shows,

They believe that Europe has lost the will to live and that the loss is linked to a loss of faith in Christianity. But while they yearn to see the West revived—and while they may even support Christianity as a social good or a metaphorical vehicle for truth—they cannot themselves believe.
Then there is Marcello Pera, whose 2008 book Why We Should Call Ourselves Christians seems to spell out the need for our religion. Pera writes,

The West today is undergoing a profound moral and spiritual crisis, due to a loss of faith in its own worth, exacerbated by the apostasy of Christianity now rife within Western culture.
And he continues,

Without faith in the equality, dignity, liberty, and responsibility of all men—that is to say, without a religion of man as the son and image of God—liberalism cannot defend the fundamental and universal rights of human beings or hope that human beings can coexist in a liberal society. Basic human rights must be seen as a gift of God . . . and hence pre-political and non-negotiable.
Yet neither Houellebecq’s character (and probably himself personally) nor Pera is willing—or able—to believe in God. That’s why Pera doesn’t name his book Why We Should Be Christians; we should just call ourselves by that name, in case it helps.

Klavan’s next example is Douglas Murray, who wrote The Strange Death of Europe in 2017. Murray says, “Unless the non-religious are able to work with, rather than against, the source from which their culture came, it is hard to see any way through.” And adds, “After all, though people may try, it is unlikely that anyone is going to be able to invent an entirely new set of beliefs.”

True. Klavan adds, “But Murray, too, is a nonbeliever, as he told me explicitly during a conversation on my podcast. Again, he knows that faith is needed, but he cannot believe.”

Next on the list is Jordan Peterson, one of my favorite thinkers. But Klavan is right about him; unlike the other examples, he is “religious,” but he refuses to answer a direct question on belief in God. As Peterson says, “I act as if God exists,” as Pera suggests, and lets the listener decide for himself what that might mean, because Peterson resists being put in a box.

Klavan calls him out on that:

If I must decide for myself, I think that Peterson is a Jungian. Beneath his abstruse verbiage, the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung essentially reimagined spirituality as an emanation of the deepest truths of human experience. “We cannot tell,” he wrote, “whether God and the unconscious are two different entities.” In practice, this means that the Jungian god is ultimately a metaphor, a means of externalizing our collective unconscious and its “archetype of wholeness.” No amount of evasive verbalization can disguise the weakness of a metaphorical god. He is the signifier of human meaning as opposed to a living objective Presence who is the source of that meaning.

Jordan Peterson (left), Bret Weinstein, Sam Harris debate
screenshot from here

Last summer, when Jordan Peterson debated Sam Harris on whether religion was good or bad for society, I saw Peterson as the clear winner. But I was still quite dissatisfied. And it was because of this reason that Klavan points out—and so did Harris: if it comes down to God being just a metaphor, and you know you’re tricking yourself into acting on the metaphor, then you have to be really skilled at lying to yourself. Why go through those mental gymnastics?

A metaphorical God is not enough. Better than refusing to believe in a God who defines goodness at all, but only barely. A straightforward actual belief in a real person God is simply more reasonable.

There’s an interesting part of Klavan’s article where he addresses the idea of creating a fictional God. And, because he is a fiction writer and a true believer in God, he offers some valuable insight here:

Good fiction does not create phenomena; it describes them. Like all art, fiction is a language for communicating a type of reality that can’t be communicated in any other way: the interplay of human consciousness with itself and the world. That experience can be delusional, as when we hear voices, mistake infatuation for love, or convince ourselves that slavery is moral. But the very fact that it can be delusional points to the fact that it can be healthy and accurate as well. When it is healthy, the “common imagination of human beings” can be regarded as an organ of perception, like the eye. Fiction merely describes the world of morality and meaning that that organ perceives.
Salt, image from here
I suggest reading that in the full context. But I’d like to address the rationality of belief. There are many things we know are true because we experience them, and yet they’re hard to explain. The taste of salt is a common example. We know it. We try to describe it. But words fail. The best way to convey saltiness is to give someone salt and say, “Here, taste this.”

I know love when I feel it; I have experience with it. But it isn’t a tangible, measurable, describable thing—although poets have been trying for centuries. We help someone else understand more by offering experience than by offering explanations. A meaningful embrace or verbal expression of love, combined with time and more experience—that may lead someone to understand it. But it doesn’t guarantee understanding. Some people resist.

The grandkids, about 5 years ago,
among the ways I've experienced love
You might say love is a spiritual thing—that you need to experience spiritually. With both mind and heart. It’s not just a set of neurons firing in our meat computer. It’s something that leads people to risk their lives for someone else. It can have physical effects on a body—and so can lack of it. But it’s something that transcends the mind.

Love is a good starting place for understanding things spiritually.

There are many things we can and do experience spiritually that are hard to convey to someone spiritually resistant.

For me such experiences are frequent. I’ve tried recording them, so I can be aware and remember better. [Those of you who are of my faith will understand when I call this additional journal my “small plates.”] There’s often a physical sensation along with the spiritual experience. Other people I talk with who share my beliefs seem to know what I’m talking about, because they have similar experiences.

But people who don’t experience these things dismiss our experiences as though they are simply our imagination. And all we can say is, “Here, taste this.” But they won’t. They even say they can’t.

There’s a concept in literature called suspension of disbelief. You use it whenever you read a novel or watch a movie. You know you are being told a story—that real life isn’t happening in front of you. These are portrayals. And yet you can feel strong emotions about the characters and what they’re going through. In fact, that’s why you put yourself through it—to get involved in someone else’s story. In hopes of understanding your own story better, no doubt. But the story, if it’s worthwhile, brings you something literally true, because you let go of the knowledge that the story isn’t true in a literal sense.

So you know how to do that. You’re experienced at it when you know something isn’t real, and yet something real comes of it. I suggest suspension of disbelief for something that may be beyond your experience but just might be real.

Concerning the resistance, Andrew Klavan says,

By assuming that the spiritual realm is a fantasy, they irrationally dismiss our experience of it. Our brains perceive the smell of coffee, yet no one argues that coffee isn’t real. But when the same brain perceives the immaterial—morality, the self, or God—it is presumed to be spinning fantasies. Coming from those who worship reason, this is lousy reasoning.
How do we reason together when a major way of understanding is off the table? What I experience, and the billions of others who have similar experiences—things they know spiritually—are told our experiences don’t count because some “rational” person says they don’t, I need a better “reason” than, “that’s just how humans were evolved; they just need to imagine things like a spirit.” Why? Why would that happen by accidental genetic mutation? Without purpose? And if there is a purpose—even if the purpose is that we will as humans thrive better if we choose to live moral lives among one another—why would the “rational” reason be random chance rather than divine plan? A literal Creator is both simpler and more reasonable than belief in disordered but happily random chance.

It is more rational to believe than not. It’s better to live in a world that appears to be designed for us, with all that we need for life and abundance. It’s better to live in a world that follows an orderly nature than one that is simply random. Morality comes from that recognition of order.

Klavan says,

Every aspect of language is physical: the brain sparks, the tongue speaks, the air is stirred, the ear hears. But the idea expressed by that language has no physical existence whatsoever. It simply is. And whether the idea is “two plus two equal four” or “I love you” or “slavery is wrong,” it is true or false, regardless of whether we perceive the truth or falsehood of it.
In other words, there’s a reality that exists whether we recognize it or not. In order to choose the good, or find the truth, we need some standard of what that is. I am much more willing to trust a source that says He is my Father in Heaven who loves me, His child, and whose voice I hear and feel and recognize spiritually, than I am to trust a source that says he’s too rational to be believe what I have experienced.

Belief starts with a "desire to believe," which is pretty much a suspension of disbelief. Then we act as if we believe—we exercise faith. That's where Jordan Peterson seems to be. 

But then we get experience—much of it spiritual—that tells us whether what we believe is true. At some point we're beyond suspending disbelief and into actual belief. And maybe into knowledge based on experience.

Klavan refers to Yuval Noah Harari, author of Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, who doesn’t believe a world of moral meaning exists. That’s all myth. I love how Klavan explains this:

For example, he refers to women as sapiens “possessing wombs” and declares that only “the myths of her society assign her unique feminine roles,” such as raising children. No one who has ever met a woman outside the planet Vulcan can imagine this to be the actual case. Harari himself speaks quite tenderly of the maternal feelings of sheep. What myths have the rams been telling the ewes?
And then, there’s this thing about human rights—which truth tells us only exist if they come from God. Harari say, “They are not a biological reality. Biologically speaking, humans don’t have rights.”

That’s worrisome, even if Harari doesn’t have ill intent. Because, as happens when someone realizes how complex the world is, if it depends all on us humans, then what? Klavan says,

Harari has argued that increasing information may require increasing centralization of power, the old progressive canard that the world has become too complex for individual freedom and must now be run by experts. This sort of thing makes one suspicious that Harari and other reason-worshiping thinkers are living justifications for Marcello Pera’s fears that freedom cannot defend itself without specifically Judeo-Christian faith.
We have liberty in this country, because we had thinkers who devoutly followed the Judeo-Christian principles that naturally lead to civilization. Those true things remain true whether one believes or not. But we only get to enjoy the fruits of them when a critical mass of people live their lives in intentionally good ways—because they are believers.

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