Friday, August 24, 2012

Companionship of sorts

A beautiful late August morning, sitting watching the sky brighten, pondering my recent obsession with watching videos of Christopher Hitchens debating various religious apologists on YouTube. Now that he's been dead nine months, I find these taped performances extremely moving, often choking up when Hitchens becomes particularly vociferous in countering the argument of an opponent, as though we were witnessing his very life-force being used up, knowing, as we do, that it was already nearly spent when these debates were recorded. These ghostly reincarnations appear very real, fully capable of confounding viewers like me. Who can say that this is not the best a human being can do, to go on arguing in video clips after the body has exited the scene? Is it not the same as leaving articles and books behind -- on library shelves and in digital files -- writings that provide companionship to the ones who encounter them, no matter when?

I find Hitchens' profession of ignorance, recognizing the limits of human understanding so far, much more agreeable than the supposed certain knowledge of the believers he confronts, no matter what variety of religion they espouse. The most pathetically confused are those like Frank Turek who try to prove the existence of a god by citing scientific discoveries -- the Big Bang, DNA, black holes -- none of which necessarily point to a reality beyond the material universe. Hitchens demolishes these arguments easily. In religion, as in politics, utter certitude is a sure sign that a person is incapable of critical thinking. Or debating.

But my siding with Hitchens feels a bit shameful, really, because I'm not happy walking around with an "A" for atheist branded on my forehead. Or in my heart. I grew up in an Episcopal church, St. James the Just in Franklin Square, one of those fabled parishes that exhibited the best qualities of a true community of believers: genuine care for one another, modesty, lack of fear, individual sacrifice for the common good. For the first dozen or so years of my life, our congregation read from the Book of Common Prayer (1928) and sang from the 1940 Hymnal. I suckled on that language and it grew in me -- in truth, it lives in me still and will till I die. It is very meet, right, and our bounden duty that we should at all times and in all places give thanks unto thee, O Lord, holy Father, almighty everlasting God, through Jesus Christ thine only Son our Lord. Which obviously doesn't square with scientific rationalism, secular humanism, or the overthrow of local gods in favor of unbridled materialism.

Yes my heart belongs to daddy and yet my mind tells me that Hitchens is (not was) right. Gods -- or god -- belong to childhood, the individual's and the species'. The problem is that childhood now lasts into old age when its imbecility is crowned with technologically-supported longevity. Hitchens showed that sixty-two years is plenty of chronological time to live a full life. No one can say that he would've accomplished more, or thought better, had he lived one moment longer.

I'm an adult, just three years shy of him when he died -- so what should I do with this inculcated need to worship, as sweet to me as mother's milk, despite the poison it contains? Follow demagogues? Look to burden personal relationships with salvific power? Exult in a sense of mastery over the world (illusory as it may be)? Revel in the senses and finally drown in them? Sing -- along with Marianne Faithfull, like a curious child -- "give me more, more, more, more, more?" (in a song aptly titled, "Guilt.") I don't think so.

This life, this world, is inexhaustible in its delights, its mysteries, its present actuality. Why do I need to worship anything beyond it? why do so many of my brethren?

The other part of the problem is how to be an authentic individual in an age of uniform individuality. We're so worried about being subsumed in the faceless crowd that we haven't noticed how reductively alike we've become, like an ant army on a sugar trail. I'm not even talking about being an original -- how many of us can aspire to originality? Perhaps the odd Hitchens or two. I'm talking about knowing how much of the person you are is you -- laughable, isn't it? -- and how much is an imposition from without, an accommodation to the surrounding world. I look at the lousy images on my laptop screen. Reality. What happens when the person I am -- nervous tittering again -- disappears down the rabbit-hole of YouTube? Nothing happens.

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