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Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Atheism Explained (by Myshkin and Waugh)

With great delight and moderate equanimity I've made it through Sandy without too much inconvenience. I'm still waiting for the power to turn back on, but, I have to say, I felt great kinship with a certain idol of mine when I got ready for work this morning by lantern light. I imagine Keats himself often dressed by lantern light. That is, when he was being a productive medical student. Perhaps he slept in once he gave himself over to impracticality. I know I would. I suppose most of you have your attention consumed either by hurricane recovery or Halloween preparations, but in the midst of your individual whirlwinds, remember to eat a scone, drink some tea, and read a bit of Keats in honor of today, the 217th anniversary of his birth. My plan had been to make a big deal of it at work, maybe get a poster and hand out memorabilia to everyone (blast! I forgot to wear my Keats lapel pin!), but mother nature had interfering plans. Now, as a lead in to the subject of this post, I feel I must tell you that although Keats had a sort of vaguely defined belief in a creative figure, he did, in fact, reject the God of Christianity. As I'm sure he didn't go to hell, this is one of a host of questions I'll have to argue out with him (as much as it can be argued) as a part of purgatory.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Keats!

While you might think that with all this quiet time I've had ample opportunity to read hundreds and hundreds of pages, I instead spent a long time going through and organizing old letters, as well as writing a few that have been weighing on my conscience for an embarrassing amount of time. I did make some progress on The Idiot, however, enough that I found myself in that Russian novel induced "the world is desperate and tragic and painfully astoundingly beautiful" mood. How DOES he DO that?!

Prince Lev Nikolaevich Myshkin, our hero, is currently engaged in a confusing discussion with a tortured soul, Parfyon Semyonovich Rogozhin. Although their central concern is to decide which of them has the right to pursue Nastasya Filippovna (the stunning and noble but damaged heartbreaker of the story), their discussion takes a number of weighty turns in seemingly unrelated directions. Perturbed by the crucial and existential questions of life, as the characters of Russian novels usually are, Rogozhin suddenly and without proper context asks Myshkin if he believes in God. Myshkin takes a bit of time to come to the point, talking in the open and lovable if sometimes long-winded manner that is his wont. He leads into his response with two stories, one of a drunken soldier who sold to him the cross he was wearing to fund his drinking. Myshkin's conclusion of this incident is, so far, one of my favorite lines of the book: "I'll wait before condemning this Christ-seller. God knows what's locked away in these drunken and weak hearts" (220).

I'll let you read the second story, as well as his response to Rogozhin's question:
An hour later, going back to my hotel, I ran into a peasant woman with a nursing baby. She was a young woman, and the baby was about six weeks old. And the baby smiled at her, as far as she'd noticed, for the first time since it was born. I saw her suddenly cross herself very, very piously. "What is it, young woman?" I say. (I was asking questions all the time then.) "It's just that a mother rejoices," she says, "when she notices her baby's first smile, the same as God rejoices each time he looks down from heaven and sees a sinner standing before him and praying with all his heart." The woman said that to me, in almost those words, and it was such a deep, such a subtle and truly religious thought, a thought that all at once expressed the whole essence of Christianity, that is, the whole idea of God as our own father, and that God rejoices over man as father over his own child -- the main thought of Christ! A simple peasant woman! True, she's a mother . . . and, who knows, maybe this woman was that soldier's wife. Listen, Parfyon, you asked me earlier, here is my answer: the essence of religious feeling doesn't fit in with any reasoning, with any crimes and trespasses, or with any atheisims; there's something else here that's not that, and will eternally be not that; there's something in it that atheisms will eternally glance off, and they will eternally be talking not about that. (220-221)
Whatever "that" is that atheists are not looking at is something that people who are looking at it can't really explain either. Which is, perhaps, why atheists don't want to look at it. Being confronted by something that cannot be explained, that we cannot understand, makes us feel limited, small, incompetent, and generally lacking control of our own destinies. We all like to be in control, to a certain degree. While there are some of us who prefer to let others take the lead, and some who like to be the leaders, not one of us, I think I can safely venture to say, likes to be without any power. If you doubt it, think of slavery, or of the two year old who mischievously runs away when you tell him to come. It takes courage to accept something that cannot be reasoned. And a certain amount of recklessness, of course. In fact, while it's true that the amount of understanding that can be obtained through reasoning is limited only inasmuch as our reasonings are limited (meaning that the more we exercise our reason the more we will be capable of growing in our understanding of mysteries), we will also realize, with each new step taken in rational understanding, that there are countless more seemingly and sometimes actually rationally unapproachable twists and turns in the path to and understanding of the whole subject at hand.

The times that I have experienced being certainly aware of God are not very rational, to say the least. Neither was the young mother's "deep, subtle and truly religious expression of the whole essence of Christianity" any kind of rational argument for God's existence. And every once in a while, when I stop and look at what I believe from a purely human point of view, I'm rather astounded by how odd it all is. I feel Charles Ryder's confusion and skepticism in Brideshead Revisited (yes, we're back to Brideshead!): 
"Cordelia has promised to pray for me," I said. "She made a novena for her pig," said Sebastian. "You know all this is very puzzling to me," I said. "I think we're causing scandal," said Brideshead. 
And again, in his discussion with Sebastian of the Christmas story:
"But, my dear Sebastian, you can't seriously believe it all." "Can't I?" "I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass." "Oh yes, I believe that. It's a lovely idea." "But you can't believe things because they're a lovely idea." "But I do. That's how I believe." 
The idea of loveliness being an impetus for belief is perhaps the strongest argument I can think of. For one thing, loveliness has so many mediums by which to approach us; physical visual beauty, of course, is the obvious path, but it can also come through any of our other senses, or through communication with other people, or through reading. Loveliness is comforting, entrancing, attractive, enchanting, convincing, and, most importantly, it is real. And there is beauty, there is loveliness, in the decision to embrace the courage and simultaneous surrender necessary to accept something we cannot understand. Avoidance is the easier, and, in this case, the far more human route.
But, the thing is, we're not just human.


  1. Two of my favorite books! Sebastian's comment on believing things BECAUSE they are lovely is one I've always come back to. I'm glad you have this blog, Ellen, because I miss discussing literature and you always have such a fun and interesting perspective. And great taste in books! ~Marisa

    1. Thanks, Marisa! And congratulations on your new writing job. I hope it's going well :)