Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Forgiving David Brooks

It isn't easy, but Mr. Brooks has almost redeemed himself in Pretty Lady's eyes, after he championed that ridiculous ABC debate. With one bold move, he has defined the nature of the coming socio-spiritual debate:

First, the self is not a fixed entity but a dynamic process of relationships. Second, underneath the patina of different religions, people around the world have common moral intuitions. Third, people are equipped to experience the sacred, to have moments of elevated experience when they transcend boundaries and overflow with love. Fourth, God can best be conceived as the nature one experiences at those moments, the unknowable total of all there is.

In their arguments with Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins, the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate. The real challenge is going to come from people who feel the existence of the sacred, but who think that particular religions are just cultural artifacts built on top of universal human traits. It’s going to come from scientists whose beliefs overlap a bit with Buddhism.

In unexpected ways, science and mysticism are joining hands and reinforcing each other. That’s bound to lead to new movements that emphasize self-transcendence but put little stock in divine law or revelation. Orthodox believers are going to have to defend particular doctrines and particular biblical teachings. They’re going to have to defend the idea of a personal God, and explain why specific theologies are true guides for behavior day to day.
And what, pray tell, is wrong with a 'cultural artifact,' when culture plays an integral part in how we define 'self'? Hmmmm?

Pretty Lady has come to subscribe, herself, to a sort of relative absolutism. She believes that it is essential to the expansion of human consciousness to subscribe, at one time or other, to a doctrine of absolutes; this is essential to the training of the mind to recognize its unity with God. However, in retrospect, these absolutes will be seen to dissolve utterly, as only being the structural supports of one's spiritual childhood.

So Pretty Lady agrees to respect people's cultural artifacts, with deep reverence, as long as they refrain from bashing others over the head with them. Agreed?


hr_g said...

Sounds like atheists aren't invited to join the love fest Brooks is fantasizing about.

Pretty Lady said...

Certainly they're invited. They just refuse to come.

hr_g said...

LOL...sure, why would we come if the big tent Brooks proposes excludes us via its basic premise. I would attend something that explored how we all share common human values.

Pretty Lady said...

hrg, you confuse me. Did you even read the column, or just the bit I quoted? Brooks is merely outlining the parameters of the coming debate, not proposing any 'big tent.' He gives plenty of ink to atheism in the first half of the article. It will take you three minute, tops, to read.

hr_g said...

I did actually...I guess I'm more hesitant to take Brooks at face value because of his past columns.

The use of "sacred" triggered some hesitance on my part (not exactly an atheist-friend term) and then his use of "the faithful have been defending the existence of God. That was the easy debate," made me confused as to what he meant. I guess you propose to understand it more than I do.

Pretty Lady said...

It is an easy debate, because it is predicated on a set of facile assumptions on both sides; on the atheist side, the famed 'Flying Spaghetti Monster' argument, and on the religious side, by the 'the Bible says so' argument. They're both blind-faith arguments. Either you assume that material reality is the basis of every phenomenon, or you assume that God is. Nobody on either side is going to change their opinion, because the decision was made before the argument began.

Once you start expanding studies of spiritual experience (not just belief or documentary evidence) into neuroscience, however, and discover that spiritual experiences can be scientifically quantified, you've eliminated the conflict between those two assumptions right at the root. The Bible declaring 'God is Love' and the Buddhist experiencing empirically verifiable states of transcendent love, start to suggest that there's more out there than either of the 'debaters' bargained for. Non-material reality turns out to shape material reality in an integral way, and it is not the metaphoric concept of God, but the personal one which is called into question.

In other words, the question 'Is there a personal God, or is there a Flying Spaghetti Monster' becomes completely moot. The question becomes 'What is Divine Law, really?'

Pretty Lady said...

I'm sure I didn't explain that very well at all. It seems like the debate is moving from the ontological to the syntactical. 'There is this Thing; now, what do we call it, and how much do we stake on those definitions?'

hr_g said...

I think you did a pretty good job of clarifying...but Brooks still makes me itch...maybe you need to become a Times columnist :)

VQ said...

The place where it gets sticky is when one begins to have Direct Experiences of Reality oneself. That can make your co-religionists very uncomfortable, even though all religions were founded upon such phenomena. Such is the way of the world, and the only way out is through.

No one who has had the merest shadow of a Direct Experience would waste time arguing about labels, they'd be meditating!

Pretty Lady said...

Rah, rah, VQ. Arguing about labels provides better entertainment than TV, however, and it can also possibly garner us some physical, mental and emotional space in which to meditate. Getting burned at the stake is so annoying.

jim said...


But please tell me...what is relative absolutism?

David said...

That was very interesting.I saw David Brooks and religion and quickly moved on, so thanks for bringing this out. As Brooks says at the end "I'm not qualified to take sides, believe me", but it sounds like a key debate considering the amount of murder and mayhem that has been visited upon us (the global 'us') by fixed positions. I find compassion is the key concept. It seems to hold up in any argument. An art writer I know predicted that the art of the future will probably have something to do with abstraction and with the spiritual. Sounds like a plan to me.

Pretty Lady said...

what is relative absolutism?

It is the theory that absolutist ideologies play a key role in training the mind to transcend its relative perspective. However, once this is accomplished, these ideologies will not only be seen to be non-absolute, but meaningless.

Anonymous said...

I love the David Brooks article. Especially after seeing that film about intelligent design
people being discriminated against. Insufficient and
light weight and repetitive and missing some key angles.
But a good point and on point for this. That the
atheist camp is actually enforcing their own militant
views on issues that they have not truly proved up.

The film and most discussions on this issue get
polarized. It's like watching kids on a see-saw. But there
happens to be a whole playground around it. Or it is
like discoveries in physics (Einstein say) that do
change our understanding of large swaths of life - but
they don't cover as much as that generation thinks
they do. Nothing will ever be the final answer.

Atheists *are* invited to the party. But they are
invited on the basis that they accept that they too argue
for a belief - that there is no prime mover. If they
accept that theories, however sturdy, are still
theories. Case in point, nothing ever escapes a black
whole's gravity. Except the one I'm told just recently
belched something back up. Oops, missed a detail. That
lack of perfection in our understanding is exciting
to me. We will never be bored.

Do I object to flat-earth or six-day-creation beliefs?
Yes, because they require massive self deception and
intellectual denial. But to have a sense of wonder,
of the possibility of more than what we see, to be
open to not having all the answers of how things came
about, and to recognize the difference between one's
beliefs, heavy probabilities, and utter proof - that I
respect. If an atheist admits that their strong beliefs
are not a requirement for sanity or even intellectual
discourse then they are welcome. If a theist of
whichever stripe admits their theology is not science, they
are welcome. And if those of us in the middle simply
wish to play on the shores of it all, picking up
pretty intellectual seashells, watching the waves of
mysteries, and feeling the wet sand of more solid ideas,
and waiting until later to find out what comes next (or
not) - well, why not?