In this month’s Pennsylvania Review, I take a Jungian tack (sans Bowie) to joust at the whole notion of belief. (Though Bowie has a habit of showing up unannounced: ‘Don’t deceive with belief’ –from Quicksand) What follows here is about half of the essay, ‘Believe Me When I Say’. The rest can be found at the link provided below.
Believe Me When I Say
Fast on the heels of my Japanese period, I think I’m turning Mosaic, at least for a day. I really think so. Maybe it’s a creeping revulsion that peaked with the recent Connecticut school massacre and has since morphed into the blackest gallows humor. I’m always the worst judge of whether I’m being satiric or serious. That’s a stylistic trifle befitting librarians. How the hell should I know? Must it be either/or?
In all seriousness though, do I believe in God? Carl Jung, whom I always felt possessed the synchronous tact to die a couple of months before my birth (and with whom I share the millstone of Myers-Briggs INTP) hesitates at the ultimate question just as I do. I cannot express enough how the following video snippet helped me lance my own intuitional boils. Asked that very question in this 1959 BBC interview shortly before his death, Jung offers a pregnant pause that speaks volumes (below at :10) as he describes his regular childhood attendance in the Swiss Reformed Church where his father was a Pastor:
Interviewer: And did you believe in God?
Jung: Oh yes.
Interviewer: Do you now believe in God?
Jung: Now? <extended pause> Difficult to answer…I know. I don’t need to believe. I know.
Clearly resisting that poor relation, belief, Jung guides the question towards his gnostic predilections. Knowing, without the annunciatory earnestness of a belief system, is the soul converging on a subjective truth that can never be fully captured in the praxis of belief. As John Updike once recognized of Van Gogh:
“The subjective urgency that Van Gogh’s objective studies often projected, as of annunciatory apparitions, now melts the boundary between seer and seen, sight and psyche.”
Who better than an artist to endorse another artist’s subjective urgency? For the rest of us, the projection of belief too often fails to convincingly melt the boundaries between intuition and annunciation. Indeed I might hazard that outspoken belief is a compensatory, even neurotic, mechanism for those who lack intuitional surety; that is, belief is what we wish others to believe of us, often with a rude insistency belying the provisional coordinates of our convictions. That’s why believers often sound brittle and shrill. By the way I include insufferable atheists in this indictment, Hitchens, Dawkins and the like. I endorse intuition. How could I not? I stalk poetry. Moreover I’ve read the poetry of others and have been affected enough to surmise I am not the sole locus of intuition in the universe. So, that would be intuition for me and intuition for you assuming, generously enough, that you are in fact out there. Intuition cannot be proselytized, nor reasoned to the ground. Gnosis is a solitary excavation that eschews scaffolding and resists easy impartation to others.
But back to the all-too-conscious realm of rationalized beliefs. Unlike my importantly earnest friend Mike Burch (a regular contributor here) whose positions I respect for their thoroughly modern appeal, not to mention their determined stabs at straight lines, I am the world’s worst student of Reason. I find it a thin, reedy and ultimately unsatisfactory instrument. Yet why is it in debates over religion I am scarcely believed when, in my best plaintive voice, I profess disquiet, like Jung, over the proffering of belief, am frankly mystified by the very process of alighting on personal belief, and am therefore disinclined to lodge belief or nonbelief in the beliefs of others? While there is such a thing as rudderless solipsism, there is also the laudable and conscious tactic of resisting belief. Left to themselves, belief systems can be benign enough prescriptions that fit crisply on a page. Put two or more together however and the joint can go up in flames. Conflicting belief systems reveal combustible perimeters. Beliefs are generally crabby and antisocial. There is always a sly inference or hint of defensiveness. Truces can be struck for the purposes of civility. Invariably these are broken. During interwar periods, uneasy coexistence is the rule. Full embrace of others defies the true nature of the true believer.
Pressed to offer my own dogma in a nutshell, it would approximate what British scientist J. D. S. Haldane said (when ‘queer’ simply meant odd or counter-rational): “my own suspicion is that the Universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.” The flame I try to keep alive is a palpable awareness of the ungraspable. This causes me to exclude nothing. Believe me, I want to bang the table and clear a few things up. It’s hard leaving questions just to stand out in the rain. But what else can you do?
Belief in the indefatigable nature of reason is, well, a belief if not a false idol altogether. On the surface, Burch’s plaints sound sensible and reasonable enough (from a recent Burch Facebook post: “the Bible and Christianity postulate a God who has values like love, compassion, justice, etc…If there is no such God, most of the Bible and the Christian religion stop making sense…”) I’m sure Mike will chime in if I’m miscasting his views, but I didn’t know God was to manifest love, compassion and justice in precisely the manner asked of me, a mere mortal. Under the guise of reasonableness, Burch is making a breathtaking attempt at man-God equalization. Certainly God would flunk a human ethics class. As to why He would—and He would—I honestly cannot say. Surely God is something other than the sum of our anthropocentric fallacies, if a pronoun (and a capitalized one no less) can even begin to acquit the weird incomprehensible sentience that God may in fact be.
[more at the link below]…