Wednesday, December 28, 2005

On Friendship

Sometimes I'm not sure why I bother to blog about Hashkafic issues. I don't think I possess any special intelligence that will glean any insight that several thousand years of human civilization hasn't come up with yet.

A case in point is this discussion I had on GH's blog a little while ago. GH thought it was absurd to consider a state of existence that doesn't have any higher purpose (i.e., one that is not man made). I don't see what the big deal is. Religion invents far more questions than it answers. The Kiruv Klowny rabbi is satisfied with using God as First Cause. Here is how that conversation goes:
Me: Rabbi, I'm not sure God exists.

Rabbi: C'mon, how else did we get here? Creatio ex nihlo is impossible! Blah blah, Rambam, blah blah.

Me: Gee, I guess you have a point. I have no idea how the basic ingredients of the Universe got here.

Rabbi: Aha!

This is usually where I leave the conversation. But God does not answer anything. He only presents more questions. Who created Him? If yesh mi'ayin is impossible, where did He come from? And if He does not need a creator, doesn't that violate the whole premise of the original question?

And let's not pretend the Torah offers clear cut ethical advice either. Much mediation of competing interests are done by human rabbis, since real life presents complications that a mere paper cannot address.

Which brings me to my next point. Living your life according to a religious code is not nearly as meaningful as some would like to pretend it is. According to the religious view, this period of life is only preparation for an eternal life. Inequity does not matter here, because the Big Guy will make it okay there.

From a secular point of view, this life is what is important. What we do in the here and now is important because when this "brief light is extinguished, an eternal night must be slept." Life becomes infinitely more meaningful when you realize that this is the one life we will ever lead. It is far more enjoyable to grapple with the questions that life presents than to try to dance the dance of religious apologetics. Does the believer really have faith that their religion is immutable? That religion is free from the pressure exerted by archaeological time? That 5,000 years can pass without religious thinkers like the Rambam and his intellectual predecessors altering the religion of the ancient B'nei Yisroel? That the description of prophecy dovetails too perfectly with the symptoms of epilepsy? That there is no evidence supporting a global flood? That there is no evidence for Exodus? That Ezra in canonizing the Bible did not massage his source material?

Human existence is far too fascinating to close the door of rigorous inquiry with the blind acceptance of Orthodox dogma.

Some, like GH, question the possibility of a meaningful life outside of religion. The secular life is described as "depressing" or cold and dark. It seems to me quite the opposite is true. The conception of religious life is the depressing one. God created this world, plunked us into it and then created a labyrinth of questions that we can never resolve. Religious apologists always have the nuclear option at their disposal- the irrational belief that God presents these questions to test us and if we choose to go with our reason, we have failed the test. Faith in God means putting dogma over reason. That must make an interesting scene in the Heavenly vestibule. I come before God, or whatever angel has been appropriated for the purpose, to explain my life.
God: Why did you not believe in the Flood?

Me: I couldn't help it. The mind you gave me told me it couldn't possibly be true.

God: But it was.

Me: How was I supposed to know that? You altered the historical record.

God: But it was a test!
Me: But how am I supposed to know when to suspend reason? Can I be rational in one sphere of existence and then hang it up when it comes to You?
And so while I plummet to Perdition, the irrational are admitted into Heaven.

Then there is the Modern (Orthodox) version of the Bible in which everything is allegory. That is even more distasteful. Nothing has any real meaning anymore. Heaven isn't a place full of togas and grapes but more of the warm, fuzzy feeling you get when you do what God wants. The Bible stories are not depictions of actual events, but moral metaphors. Which definitely explains why early commentators derived law out of word usage. I'm not sure how anyone could believe this and remain Orthodox at all. If it is the story that is important, and not the words itself, the Talmud has some major explaining to do. Christianity, of course, has a much better take on this:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God."

But I digress.

In the comment thread, Holy Hyrax challenged my assertion that pursuing meaningful friendships is a goal of secularism. As usual, I am frustrated to discover that this is hardly an original idea. Cicero, in his essay "On Friendship" wrote "without friendship, life can have no true enjoyment." And he should know, the poor bastard.

As Cicero believed in the Socratic eternal soul, his idea of friendship reflected something eternal about human relations. He wrote:
And great and numerous as are the blessings of friendship, this certainly is the sovereign one- that it gives us bright hopes for the future and forbids weakness and despair. In the face of a true friend, a man sees it were a second self. So that as his friend is, so is he. If his friend is rich, he is not poor. If his friend is strong, he is not weak, as his friend's strength is his own. And in his friend's life, he enjoys a second life after his own is finished. This last is perhaps the most difficult to conceive. But such is the effect of the respect, the loving remembrance, and the regret of friends which follows us to the grave. While they take the sting out of death, they add a glory to the life of the survivors.
While I make no claims about the eternality of the soul, should one exist, this idea of friendship presents us with the idea that the choices we make in this world is all that is permanent. Should you feud with someone, after you die, there will be nothing that will cure it. For the rest of eternity the fact that you were not friends is unalterable. The converse of that is if you have a close friend, even the shifting sands of time will not be able to change that fact.

A depressing existence? I don't think so.